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Howes: Education, skills power economic growth in MI

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

A radical concept in this workaday state is emerging at the governor's clumsily named "GES 2" summit: Education drives economic growth.

Don't believe it? Look at the surging demand from young professionals and empty-nester boomers for residential space in downtown and Midtown Detroit. Their arrival and clamor for more are creating a hot market for upscale restaurants, bars and retail, a logical economic response that creates jobs and tax revenue.

Daniel Howes

What about the tens of thousands of technical jobs that go unfilled for want of viable candidates? The mismatch signals that the suppliers of would-be educated employees are not meeting the demands of would-be employers — and that fixing the problem, as several state programs aim to do, theoretically could drive more growth.

"We struggle every week to find the employees we need," Mike Gidley, executive vice president of Pontiac Coil Inc., told a session at the summit. "Nothing seems to work well at all."

Welcome to Michigan's next economic hurdle. The state that shaped the modern "factory man," and the expectations he embodied, faces a series of transitions already challenging assumptions of the training and education needed to succeed in a 21st-century economy.

More, the influx of young professionals into an urban core like Detroit offers opportunity across the economic spectrum, from white-collar tech jobs in downtown office buildings to service jobs that might not otherwise be available in a city plagued by high unemployment.

A growing body of evidence strongly suggests that producing (and attracting) an educated workforce — increasingly in the direction of urban centers — can bolster economic growth as effectively as booming factory payrolls in the suburbs.

The implication may be mildly off-putting to generations reared on blue-collar aspirations and 50 years of inexorable sprawl. But intellectual capital properly trained is increasingly important to a business community frustrated with its hunt for fresh talent.

"That's our future," Gov. Rick Snyder said in his opening remarks to his twinned economic and education summits at the Detroit Marriott, "the combination of economics and education."

"Employers are motivated to do this because of their great level of concern" about finding qualified candidates to fill vacancies, he continued in an interview Tuesday, adding that business leaders should be more engaged in what he called the education setting. "Helping people become career connected is ... critically important to me."

It should be — and not because of the false choice between support for job training and higher education in pursuit of four-year college degrees for more Michigan residents. The state needs both, and more, a measure of its diversity and the evolution of reviving urban cores like Detroit.

An economic truth of a state still powered by the technical requirements of the global auto industry is that there continues to be demand for skilled workers with up-to-date training and education — and far less demand for workers with neither.

That reality carries a cultural reckoning all its own in a state whose educational attainment badly lags national leaders like Massachusetts, or whose power structure is more geared to delivering higher tests scores than demanding the higher standards as the gateway to success in higher education.

"The biggest single driver of how successful you are as an individual is the amount of education you have," says Joe Cortright, president of Impresa Economics in Portland, Ore., and author of a new study linking educational attainment to job growth in urban centers.

"Over time, that relationship has grown stronger. Then what is true for individuals is also true for cities and places. The ballgame in economic development today and going forward is how well you educate your people."

And, in a virtuous economic circle, those folks (talent) are heading to walkable and bikeable urban centers (place) — either to chase employers like, say, Quicken Loans Inc. and its affiliate companies, or to be chased by them (business).

In a report for City Observatory, a Portland-based think tank, Cortright shows that job growth in city centers across the country outpaced growth in the suburbs between 2007 and 2011. That's a complete reversal from 2002 to 2007.

"This center-led growth represents the reversal of a historic trend of job de-centralization that has persisted for the past half-century," he writes. "City centers have also erased their competitive disadvantage. The data make it clear that city centers are more competitive ...."

That hasn't been the case around here in a long time. But, increasingly, it is, proving that change even can come to Detroit.

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at