Detroit Regional Chamber > Mackinac Policy Conference > Michigan Must Defend Its Defense Jobs

Michigan Must Defend Its Defense Jobs

June 2, 2016

The Detroit News

By Nolan Finley

June 2, 2016

The defense industry supports 100,000 of the best paying jobs in Michigan and adds $9 billion to the state economy. And with other states working to steal it away, Michigan is not doing enough to defend its defense sector.

A year-long study and strategic plan commissioned by the state and to be released today at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference details both the opportunities and worry points. Called Protect and Grow, the report is the subject of a panel I’ll be moderating this morning featuring Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and representatives of the defense industry.

It’s not the sexiest agenda item, but in terms of economic impact on the state, it is among the most important.

“Without much fanfare,” Michigan has been a leader in the defense sector for decades and the industry is a major contributor to our economy,” Calley says. “The Protect and Grow plan will allow us to proactively develop this important business sector.”

First, lets talk about the risks. The pool of defense dollars is shrinking due to cutbacks in the federal budget and a push to make the military smaller, nimbler and more efficient. That’s setting off a competition among states, all of which have the same goal as Michigan: to keep and grow their defense dollars.

Already, Huntsville, Alabama, and Rock Island, Illinois, are making a play for the Army’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, which manages 65 percent of all Army equipment and employs 7,500 workers, nearly half of them veterans. This is the big prize. If TACOM, or major parts of it, relocates, thousands more private sector supplier jobs will go, too.

Also targeted is the Tank Automotive Research and Development Center (TARDEC) in Macomb County, responsible for critical military technology functions.

These are great jobs, paying 65 percent above the state’s average wage. And they are highly coveted by states hoping to create technology centers.

And while it has been more than a decade since the Defense Department conducted a Base Realignment and Closure assessment, the Obama administration has been pressing Congress to approve one, and the idea has growing support.

The assessments and the inevitable shrinkage they produce set off a scramble among states to convince the Defense Department to consolidate the remaining resources. Michigan has not always fared well in past BRAC rounds, losing several bases and other facilities, including a tank plant.

Protecting assets requires a committed, influential and united congressional delegation. Unfortunately, turnover in Michigan’s delegation has lessened its clout. The state has lost Sen. Carl Levin, who retired last year and chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, and is losing Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, to retirement at the end of this year. Add in the retirements of heavyweight Congressmen John Dingell, Dave Camp and Mike Rogers, and Michigan is in a rebuilding stage in Washington.

And protecting defense jobs has not yet topped its agenda, but Stabenow says it will.

“We have to work together on this,” she says. “Fighting for this important sector will be a priority of the delegation.”

There are plenty of opportunities for Michigan to exploit.

Chief among them is the automotive industry, which is intrinsically linked to defense manufacturing. The engineering and research and development talent in Michigan gives it a competitive advantage, particularly as the military joins the automakers in a rapid push toward connectivity and self-driving vehicles. Many of the auto suppliers also serve as defense contractors.

The report recommends a strategy for keeping and growing the industry in Michigan. The most pressing points are partnerships and investments in infrastructure.

Michigan should be a leader in creating training and research centers. For example, the report suggests a heavy investment to make Interstate 69 a mobility corridor for testing autonomous vehicle technology, and a build out of Willow Run Airport as a mobility research and testing center.

The report also recommends stronger links between the defense industry and Michigan’s universities. And it advises strengthening ties between defense facilities and automakers.

There’s a lot more in the report, but the conclusion is this: Michigan simply can’t lose this important job engine. It must stay competitive. And to do so, it needs a comprehensive strategy to protect and grow the defense industry, and it needs it in a hurry.

That’s the challenge coming out of Mackinac.

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