Michigan needs to change direction when it comes to the state of education and its future economy, a top business official said Thursday at the Mackinac Policy Conference.
“On the topic of educating our people and on the topic of preparing our children for real jobs in the real world and on the topic of preparing our workers so that our businesses have enough workers to capitalize on the economic recovery, I absolutely believe we are headed in the wrong direction,” said Joe Harlan, executive vice president of chemicals, energy and performance materials at the Dow Chemical Company. “We need to turn it around now and we need to turn it around faster than anything we’ve ever done before in this state.”
The nation is on the verge of one of the biggest investments eras in our lifetime with the availability of cheap natural gas locally, but there aren’t enough skilled workers in the pipeline, Harlan said.
“We don’t have a worker shortage. We have a skills shortage,” he said.
Harlan made opening comments before the first panel on the second day of the three-day policy conference held annually on Mackinac Island.
He joined panelists Virinder Moudgill, president of Lawrence Technological University; Marilyn Schlack, president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Walter Maisel, president and CEO of Kostal North America, on the issue of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and Michigan’s economic future.
How do we make STEM cool, asked moderator Mary Kramer, publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business.
“Are kids just not turned on by science and how do we turn that around?” Kramer said.
At Lawrence Tech, there has been a “RoboFest” — a festival of robots — for 15 years where kids in grades 4-12 participate in groups and build robots, Moudgill said.
“They love to do this because it is like a toy for them,” Moudgill said. “But in fact, they are learning mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics and science ... not knowing that’s what they are really doing. So when they grow up, they want to pursue (these careers).”
This is addressing a small cohort of students that differ from others, who go to college and see math and science as difficult and then turn to softer courses, Moudgill said.
“We are graduating a large number of people with diplomas but not with skills that industry wants,” Moudgill said. “When these (other) kids grow up, they want to be an engineer or an architect or a scientist or a doctor, they are ready because they are already doing that, it’s fun to them. To introduce them early on is the best way to increase our workforce.”
Meanwhile, community colleges are working closely with local businesses that are helping colleges address skilled worker needs by donating equipment, shaping curriculum, advising them and more.
“When the students come out, we guarantee that the students will have a competency-based diploma,” said Schlack said.