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President’s Letter: Want to Recover Stronger? Fix 2020’s Other Crisis

During my last tour of duty in Washington, I had roles responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial meltdown. These crises taught me a valuable lesson about the impact of crises on future behaviors: We never change as much as we think we will – and we never change as much as we should. I’m sure this lesson will hold for all that 2020 has delivered. However, as we look back on the impact of COVID and the social awakening driven by the Black Lives Matter movement, this much we know:

  • The equity gap – the growing disparities in social and economic outcomes among our citizens – far too often based on race – is morally unacceptable, has caused economic and social damage, and must be addressed.
  • Workers with higher skills not only have options unavailable to lower skilled workers, higher skilled workers are faring much better – in health and financial terms – during the COVID crisis.
  • The pandemic is accelerating the trend toward remote working. While the current extraordinary level of remote working will not last, workers will expect more flexibility and employers will be more comfortable granting it – vastly opening the geographic scope in which Michigan-based employers can search for new talent.
  • Economic crises drive spikes in technology and automation; this crisis will be no different. Accelerations of technology favor highly skilled workers and leave less skilled workers increasingly behind.
  • The global war for talent continues. Companies across the globe are racing to attract the best talent to accelerate their technological edge. The teams – company or geographic region – with the best talent will win the 21st century.

All of these trends lead to an unescapable conclusion; Michigan must fundamentally improve the education attainment of all its citizens. The adjective “all” is an operative term. We must improve the skill and education level of Michigan citizens regardless of age, race or ethnicity, situation or circumstance. This effort must be done equitably, recognizing that some members of our society will need greater resources and attention.

As the global automotive industry evolves into the connected mobility industry, as our manufacturing firms move boldly into the world of Manufacturing 4.0, as our need for skilled professional services ever increases, as technology and automation become more dominate in every industry – Michigan must have the skilled talent to meet the demands of business and ensure individuals and families can thrive financially and socially in the 21st century.

Those of us who have been fortunate in life may be tempted to think that our education challenge is limited to disadvantaged urban areas. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, however, Michigan students in our most affluent schools only rank 34th academically compared to their national peers. Certainly, the challenge is more acute in some areas, but of all 9th graders in 2009 in the Region, only 30% had completed a post-secondary credential or degree by 2019 – that’s what we call the leaky pipeline and theme of this Detroiter.

Currently, 41% adult Michiganders have bachelor’s or associate degrees or higher, while best in class states have well above 50%. This gap puts Michigan – and our businesses and individuals – at a disadvantage in the global marketplace. Meanwhile, 43% earn an income below the ALICE rate (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), the level of income required for basic necessities for a family. This is why the Chamber has the goal of Michigan reaching 60% of our adults with a post-secondary credential by 2030 – and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has adopted this goal as well.

Vastly improving education attainment is critical to improving the economic outcomes for Michigan and all those who call her home. Equally important is how education must be again become the equalizer that provides all persons, regardless of race, zip code or other circumstance, an equitable chance to achieve their version of the American Dream. The Detroit Regional Chamber has been building one of the largest education and talent portfolios in Michigan. Reaching 60% by 2030 will be an all-hands-on deck enterprise and we are committed to continuing our leadership role in this critical work.