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Talent, education, culture change on menu of Mackinac conference

From Crain’s Detroit Business

By Chris Gautz

May 9, 2013

Tackling the state’s gap between employer talent needs and the skills of the workforce is bubbling to the top as a priority for discussion at this month’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

The conference this year is focused on three topical pillars: talent, education and culture change. As usual, it is meant to appeal to a statewide audience of decision-makers and legislators.

Joseph Welch, chairman, president and CEO of Novi-based ITC Holdings Corp. and the chairman of this year’s conference on Mackinac Island, said education is a major focus of his and that he will speak on a panel about its role in 21st century jobs.

“The talent gene pool is thin,” he said.

For example, Welch said, most schools do not teach about the electrical and power industry anymore, and that has led to an aging workforce nearing retirement, without much talent in the pipeline ready to replace it.

“Most of the people in the power industry look like me, and that’s not good,” said Welch, 64.

Another issue for Welch is that a large segment of the younger population is not college-bound, and the type of work his employees do requires high levels of mathematics. It’s not enough anymore to just be brave enough to climb up a transmission tower, he said.

Several others are planning to speak at the Mackinac conference on the importance of education and ways to reform the state’s education system. Among them:

• Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will take the stage after Gov. Rick Snyder opens the conference at 1:30 p.m. May 29. Bush is expected to talk about the reforms he instituted while governor.

• Michelle Rhee, CEO and founder of Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization StudentsFirst, will also discuss education reform the following day.

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which presents the conference annually, said last week the three conference pillars are intertwined in many ways.

Immigration policy, which relates to all of them, is expected to be a major focus, with both Bush and Carlos Gutierrez, the former U.S. Commerce secretary and former CEO of Kellogg Co., speaking on the topic.

Baruah said several senior members of Congress are planning to speak as well and will touch on immigration and other issues.

Robert Johnson, the Black Entertainment Television founder described by Baruah as “the Dan Gilbert of Washington, D.C.,” will discuss the role the private sector can play in urban redevelopment.

One person vital to that role in Detroit may not be at the conference, Baruah said. Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is unlikely to attend, he said, due to his busy schedule.

There will also be a series of panel discussions on manufacturing, particularly on the roles of those in the supply chain, and on infrastructure and financial stability, as well as a discussion of cybersecurity.

And with the absence this year of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, Baruah said there will not be a Fab Five panel with the leaders of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties along with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. Those regional leaders will still have a yet-to-be-determined role.

Baruah said he understands Patterson can’t make the Mackinac event because of his ongoing recovery from injuries sustained in an August 2012 automobile accident.

Because the conference is beginning earlier this year, Baruah is encouraging attendees to come up to the island Tuesday night, May 28, rather than leave the Detroit region by 5 a.m. Wednesday in order to make it up on time.

The conference ends on Friday, May 31, with a keynote address from Snyder at 11 a.m. Attendance right now is about 1,300, on par with where it was at this point last year, Baruah said.

At the end of the conference, there will be a to-do list created with actionable items to check off before next year’s event.

One of those items from last year was the leading of a delegation of Detroit-area business leaders to Washington, D.C., to learn about the redevelopment there. That trip is scheduled to take place in a few weeks.

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Chris Gautz: (517) 403-4403, Twitter: @chrisgautz