Now that Detroit has been dinged from the Amazon H2Q sweepstakes, what is our region’s blueprint for competing in the 21st century economy? This moment should serve as a wake-up call for the region to cultivate its most valuable asset: its talent.
Amazon specified “a highly educated labor pool” as one of its core selection criteria. Every one of the twenty finalist cities boasted higher rates of bachelor’s degree attainment than Detroit. Overall, Detroit ranks 40th out of the 50 largest metros with only 29 percent of its population holding a four-year degree. Developing a more educated workforce at all levels — high-skill trades, associate’s and bachelor’s — is critical to having Detroit thrive in the future. By 2025, 60 percent of American jobs will require education beyond high school.
Michigan has a serious challenge in recruiting talent. It ranks 49th in the country for attracting adults who were born outside of the state. Our region needs to better position itself as a desirable destination for an increasingly mobile next generation of workers. Crucial to this pitch is offering walkable neighborhoods, public transit and other amenities that young professionals want.
But the largest gains for boosting economic prosperity and opportunity in Detroit will come not from attracting migrants, but from investing in homegrown talent. Detroit now confronts a crisis of unprecedented proportions in educating its population to the extent required to attract companies like Amazon. Of the region’s ninth-graders, 77 percent graduate from high school and 57 percent enroll in some sort of post-secondary education. But, among high school graduates that pursue post-secondary training, only 36 percent end up receiving a degree or credential.
Addressing these gaps not only facilitates economic growth but also ensures the American dream is still possible for the residents of Detroit. Currently, a child born to the lowest 20 percent of earners in our region has the most narrow odds — less than 15 percent — of ever reaching the middle class. In contrast, regions with large concentrations of college-educated workers have higher wages and lower unemployment rates for everyone, including low and high income individuals. As former Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. exhorted recently: “We cannot deliver the promise of opportunity in America if we don’t deliver it in our schools.”
Detroit must now leverage the same regional collaborations and commitments that poured into the Amazon bid this fall to address our weak talent pipeline. I offer five broad strategies — based on what I’ve learned working alongside high school counselors, university presidents and business leaders — on how to equip our workforce with the skills and knowledge needed in the next century:
■ Strengthen our K-12 education system through robust standards, assessments and increased funding, so that Detroit students graduate “college ready.” In 2017, only a third of Michigan’s high school graduates met this benchmark;
■ Bolster the resources the state devotes to student financial aid and higher education institutions. Currently, Michigan’s investment in post-secondary education on a per-capita basis is 28 percent lower than the national average;
■ Hold universities and colleges accountable in ensuring their students successfully earn a degree or credential. The object is not just getting students to college but through college;
■ Retain our homegrown talent, of whom nearly 40 percent leave the state one year after graduation, according to a survey conducted by the Detroit Regional Chamber.
■ Provide older, working adults, who are fast becoming the majority of college students, a clear pathway to pursue post-secondary education.
Detroit, with its diversity, rich culture and history and entrepreneurial ethos, has more to offer than most major cities. Our next chapter does not depend on securing the next “Hail Mary” business attraction deal, but rather on preparing 4.3 million hard-working Detroit residents to compete in a rapidly evolving economy. This is something we needed to do regardless of whether Amazon decided to move to Detroit.
Historically, Detroit has tended to confront its major challenges only at the point of crisis: the Big Three made necessary reforms only after the auto bailout in 2008, and the city’s financial house was put in order after it filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Let’s act differently now. Let’s not waste our defeat in the Amazon competition. It’s time for an urgent commitment to growing Detroit’s talent through education. Nothing else will drive Detroit’s future economic development more than prioritizing homegrown talent.
Melanie D’Evelyn works on higher education policy in Detroit.