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Wanted: More skilled workers in Michigan, say Gov. Rick Snyder and others


By Julie Mack

January 18, 2017

LANSING, MI — Michigan’s recent job growth has created a new problem: Finding qualified workers to fill those positions.

It’s a topic raised by Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials Tuesday night, as Snyder gave his seventh annual state of the state address.

“We went from having jobs leaving the state to now they are coming back,” said Roger Curtis, director of the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development. “It creates new issues. They are good issues, but they are still issues. The need is now.”

In fact, there are “thousands and thousands” of jobs that need to be filled, Curtis said. “I looked on our website this morning and there were 90,000 job openings listed.”

Those openings run the gamut from jobs in the skilled trades, to engineers, to work in agriculture, to police officers.

In Tuesday’s address, Snyder spoke at length about education and job-training, and how that is tied to the state’s continued economic recovery.

In particular, Snyder spoke of continued and increased investment in community colleges and skilled trades apprenticeship programs.

No question, encouraging Michigan children and young adults to pursue post-secondary education — as well as funding those programs — are key to Michigan’s future success, said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“We can’t take our foot off the gas just because we have lower unemployment,” Williams said. “We could easily go back to the dark days of the recession.”

Among the ways to build the state’s skilled workforce, officials said Tuesday:

  • Encourage people to move to Michigan, and “put them to work,” Snyder said. The governor set the goal of having Michigan grow its population to at least 10 million residents by 2020. The last time Michigan’s population exceeded 10 million was 2008. The most recent estimate pegs the state population at 9,922,576.
  • Encourage immigration. Immigrants — from engineers to migrant workers — play a critical role in the state’s workforce, Curtis said. Asked about potential curbs on immigration by President-Elect Donald Trump, Curtis said: “I think everyone is a little worried right now about what President Trump is going to do.”
  • Encourage Michigan college graduates to stay in Michigan. “We do a lot of things in the state that drive away our young people. I’m the mother of three millennials,” said House Democratic Floor Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills. So what do they want? Mass transportation, welcoming communities and vibrant downtowns, she said.
  • Improve education outcomes among Michigan children and young adults. Snyder spoke Tuesday of the need to prepare K-12 students for post-secondary education.
  • Encourage students to pursue careers in fields where the need is the greatest, such as engineering and skilled trades. “There are a lot of preconceived notions about skilled trades” that underestimate the pay and skill level need for those jobs, Curtis said.
  • Fund vocational and other post-secondary programs to encourage enrollment. Williams said his organization is especially enthuisiastic about vocational programs at community colleges that are targeted for jobs at specific companies.

Ideally, 60 to 65 percent of Michigan high school graduates should be completing a post-secondary program, Michigan State Superintendent Brian Whiston said. Currently, about 37 percent of Michigan adults age 25 and older have at least an associate’s degree.

“I like the plan where everybody gets the first two years of college for free,” through a community college, Whiston said.

In fact, such programs are available now in many K-12 districts, which are collaborating with community colleges to allow teenagers to stay on for a fifth year of high school and graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

But getting students to college also means improving outcomes for underachievers, and that could mean revamping the way Michigan funds K-12 education, Whistler said.

While Snyder noted Tuesday that funding for Michigan’s K-12 education is at an all-time high, Whiston — who is appointed by the Michigan State Board of Education, an elected body — said more money is needed.

Whiston pointed to a 2016 study by consultants hired by the state that concluded “notably successful” school districts spent an average of $8,667 per student in 2013-14. The state’s minimum per-pupil foundation grant is $7,511 for 2016-17.

“We’re below the ($8,667) figure by a considerable amount,” Whiston said.

He also said the current funding formula puts schools serving high-poverty populations at a disadvantage.

“Poverty counts,” he said. “For awhile, there was the feeling everybody should get the same amount. But we’re come to realize that maybe that shouldn’t be the case. Some kids, like English-language learners, are more expensive to educate.

“It’s a different way of looking at funding,” Whisten said. “I think we’re getting there.”

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