April 3, 2009 at 1:00 am

Michigan efforts fail to slow population exodus

Lansing -- Scattershot efforts to stem the tide of moving vans, from street repaving in Cadillac to a Web site in Detroit, have so far failed to slow the Michigan Exodus.

About 109,000 more people left Michigan than moved in last year, quadruple the loss of seven years ago. Many of those are young, college-educated workers, exactly the kind of people Michigan needs to rebuild.

"We're up against a strong headwind," said Liz Boyd, press secretary to Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "The governor has made it very clear how challenging it is when you have an economy based for a hundred years on one industry, and you have changes that have impacted (that) industry."

That long-standing reliance on the auto industry has made Michigan slow to embrace the changes needed to keep and attract residents. "Remember, 10 years ago, you could still make (good money) working at the Wayne Truck Plant," said John Bebow, executive director of the Center for Michigan, an Ann Arbor-based think tank. "That's not a time that's going to breed innovation."

Bebow and others recommend a mixed bag of programs and policies that could, over time, reverse a trend that is damaging Michigan's efforts at economic recovery.

  • Michigan needs to increase its percentage of adults with college degrees. The state has offered free tuition to community colleges in high-demand fields to the unemployed and underemployed, and a $4,000 grant toward college tuition for graduating high school seniors. Beginning with the graduating class of 2007, about 100,000 students have received at least one installment of the $4,000 Promise Scholarship, which can be used at any Michigan public or private university, community college or trade school.

    While that program has helped increase college enrollment, those who graduate from college are increasingly taking their diplomas and leaving the state. About half of Michigan college grads now leave the state.

  • The state had a net loss of 18,000 college-educated adults in 2007. "How many are leaving is bad enough," said Patti Jones, of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. "What is even more disturbing is that a large percentage didn't even look (for a job) here."

    To fight that, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce is creating a Web site to link college students with internships in Michigan. The site, http://www.interninmichigan.com">www.interninmichigan.com, is similar to one operated by state universities in New Hampshire. The Web site should be operational later this year.

    In some fields, between 60 percent and 80 percent of internships lead to full-time job offers. "When we retain college talent, we're in a position to compete for business," Jones said.

    Making college grads aware of jobs in Michigan may not be enough. One-third of grads who left the state in 2007 had job offers in Michigan but fled anyway.

  • Street repaving in downtown Cadillac might seem an unusual way to fight that problem, but it's an example of projects funded by Granholm's Cool Cities grant program.

    Through the program, the state provides money to cities to make communities more vibrant and energetic -- the type of communities that are attractive to young professionals. So far, the program has provided $4.6 million to 48 neighborhoods around the state.

    Cool Cities program director Karen Gagnon said it's difficult to quantify the effects of those grants, but anecdotally she believes the program has helped create jobs. "It's critical to pay attention to talent attainment and retention," Gagnon said. "Talent is the new currency."

  • Another effort, called MichAgain, focuses on those who have already left the state.

    While MichAgain is still looking for funding, a similar program is already under way in Iowa. Called Generation Iowa, the program sends mailings and newsletters to Iowa public university grads who have moved away.

    The Iowa effort is funded in part by state government; Michigan hasn't kicked in any money for MichAgain or the Detroit Chamber's statewide internship effort.

    In 2007, Iowa had a net gain of 3,000 people with college degrees from other states; Michigan lost 18,000.

    The state has reinvented itself before. The lumber industry of the 19th century gave way to the auto industry of the 20th century. "Michigan's past includes times when innovation grew from desperation," Bebow said. "This is going to take time. We're trying to turn an economy."

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