Pleger: Rebuild Michigan by developing workforce talent

Tom Pleger

Like many Midwestern states, Michigan felt the impact of the financial crash in the late 2000s hard and fast. Since the days of Henry Ford’s “$5-a-day” work day, Michigan’s economy had always been heavily based on manufacturing and attracting talent to the region. But with the decline of the auto industry, unemployment soared and many left the state to look for opportunities elsewhere. Despite those challenging times, Michigan is now in the midst of a rebound. Detroit is rebuilding and redefining itself, the auto industry is back on its feet, and the Pure Michigan tourism campaign is making the Great Lakes state a household name around the country.

Like many governors, Michigan’s Rick Snyder led the charge to rebuild by encouraging the return of business and manufacturing, promoting the development of technology, innovation, and tourism. However, unlike many governors, he has begun to systematically reinvest state resources into higher education as a means of restoring the middle class.

In his 2015 State of the State address, Snyder used the phrase “river of opportunity” to illustrate Michigan’s responsibility to help its workforce access the means to grow an ever more globalized economy. Michigan has learned that higher education, be it anything from a four-year degree to a certificate program, is essential for the majority of its labor force to stay competitive, and that its institutions of higher education serve as resources for talent attraction, economic development, and retention.

I have the honor of leading Lake Superior State University, located in the heart of the Great Lakes at historic Sault Ste. Marie. Founded in 1668 on the banks of the St. Mary’s River, Sault Ste. Marie is one of the oldest communities in our nation. Much like the rest of Michigan at the turn of the 20th century, “The Soo” relied on a manufacturing and industrial economy that featured the famous Soo Locks, the busiest shipping locks in the world, as a means to connect lakes Huron and Superior, and the U.S.-Canadian border. Our economy was bolstered by good paying jobs and the promise of opportunities for advancement that attracted migrants from across the globe to come work along the river. However, much like the rest of the state, those jobs faded away, forcing the region to re-examine its future and strategy to attract talent.

It was in this context that LSSU was founded in 1946 to predominantly serve returning World War II veterans under the GI Bill. It has since grown to serve 2,500 students with high-demand degree programs in the liberal arts and professional studies including the natural and social sciences, health fields, engineering, business, nursing, and law enforcement, to name only a few. LSSU is also involved in regional research focusing on natural resources, the economy, and cultural heritage of the Great Lakes.

With these programs, LSSU and its peer institutions across the state have a crucial role in their regional economies as hubs for talent attraction and workforce development. Like the economy of Sault Ste. Marie and Michigan before, our universities now offer a pathway for career advancement while also serving to attract people from outside of the state. Because of this role, and because we know that every college student who attends Lake State will have an impact on the local economy of nearly $45,000 annually, LSSU has taken the innovative step of offering a one-rate tuition plan that allows students from anywhere in North America to attend LSSU for the same price as Michigan residents. We believe that this will not only aid in attracting talent and strengthening our economy, but will enable more people to enjoy the benefits of Michigan’s “river of opportunity.”

Tom Pleger is president of Lake Superior State University.