Print Friendly and PDF

Michigan’s workforce, economy are behind. Here’s how we catch up.

Sandy K. Baruah and Doug Ross

This piece was originally published in the Detroit Free Press 

When you step away from the partisan rhetoric that dominates public conversation and stop to think about the legislation that has changed our lives, you realize that much of it has been bipartisan. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956, the Civil Rights Acts of 1960s, the Apollo space program — even the CARES Act in the midst of the pandemic — were the result of elected Democrats and Republicans working together. As members of different parties who served in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations respectively, we witnessed firsthand the importance of working across party lines to get big things done that can survive the test of time.

In Michigan, we have big issues to address that require action that is swift, bold, and bipartisan. Chief among them is ensuring our citizens of today and tomorrow have the education and skills to compete in the 21st century. This issue is equally important to Democrats and Republicans, both urban and rural.

From a competitive standpoint, Michigan sits in the lower-middle of national rankings when it comes to having the degrees and skill certificates demanded by global businesses. Michigan is 36th in per capita income and, not surprisingly, 30th in the percent of adults with college degrees. Nearly 40% of Michigan families live below the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) standard, the income needed to cover a family’s basic needs.

Michigan’s current educational attainment levels fall far short of what our businesses anticipate they will need over the next five years: an additional half million highly skilled employees — who don’t yet exist.

The encouraging news is that building more talent is an issue where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders have a bipartisan record of achievement. Expanding Going Pro, which helps businesses upgrade the skills of employees, and enactment of Michigan Reconnect, providing tuition-free community college to Michiganders 25 or older without a college degree, both required and received Republican and Democratic support.

More must be done to meet this 21st century challenge. Michigan needs to once again be a national leader in developing its citizens’ skills. Success demands robust early education to give young people a solid start, a K-12 system with dramatically higher standards for all, and a financial barrier-free pathway to an associate degree, skill certificate or first two years of university — a universal “K-12 plus two” system.

The numbers tell the story. The unemployment rate for those with just a high school degree is 250% greater than those with a college degree and the diminishing job opportunities for those without a post-secondary credential rarely pay a living wage — only 1% of those who earn $62,500 or more have no post-secondary training or education. Just as all the states provided universal primary school by the end of the Civil War and universal high school by the start of World War II, now it’s time to recognize that a high school degree is no longer enough in today’s knowledge economy and that all citizens require some post-secondary education or training. The states that create universal K-12 plus two systems first will be the ones to prosper most.

We urge the governor and Legislature to come together to examine the public and private solutions that will create a “K-12 plus two” educational system that prepares our state to compete and win in the knowledge economy.

Sandy K. Baruah is chief executive officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber and served as assistant secretary of commerce under President George W. Bush.

Doug Ross is a partner in the Diploma Equity Project, a former advisor to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and served as assistant secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.