Column: Tackle Michigan’s skills gap

Roger Curtis and Brian Whiston

We’ve traveled the state talking with employers, and the message from them is clear: We can’t find enough people with in-demand skills to fill jobs that will help us grow and thrive.

And we also hear common concerns raised by our educators, who say they struggle to get more students into career-tech classrooms, or lack the staff and resources to get those classes in step with the current needs of the workplace.

We need to tackle these challenges.

At the direction of Gov. Rick Snyder and the goals and strategies set forth by the Building Michigan’s 21st Century Economic report and the 21st Century Michigan Education Commission, we’re taking a holistic approach to elevating all pathways to good-paying careers in Michigan, especially those in the professional trades.

We need to close our state’s talent gap, caused, in part, by a career awareness gap. Too many students are unaware of, and don’t always have access to, all the pathways leading to rewarding and good-paying careers.

The Michigan Career Pathways Alliance is the catalyst for our approach. The coalition — made up of educators, employers, union leaders, professional organizations, higher-education institutions and economic developers — is seeking to expand quality career-tech programs to help all students graduate with in-demand skills.

Among the 17 recommendations outlined by the alliance is establishing a required career exploration class before students begin to select elective classes in high school. They need to start thinking about what they want to do and the best pathway to training, be that a four-year degree, an apprenticeship, a community college program or other approaches.

We also are working to give schools the resources they need, including adding counselors; help finding and retaining skilled people to teach career-oriented classes; and technical assistance to integrate Michigan Merit Curriculum requirements into career programs.

We want to prepare our students for 21st century careers. We need to begin the discussion on sustainable and adequate funding for career tech programs across the state now, to ensure all students have an equal chance to gain the skills needed to succeed.

At the same time, we are working to change outdated perceptions of professional trades. Opportunities are abundant and provide a great pathway to a sustainable living. We need to do a better job at getting out the facts.

There is growing demand for jobs in the professional trades. These career opportunities are what will catapult Michigan into sustained economic prosperity. By 2024, professional trades will account for more than 500,000 jobs in the Michigan economy with 15,000 new job openings added each year during that time.

These aren’t the skilled trades of the past. Professional trades require rigorous training and education, and lifelong learning, and the preparation starts early in high school.

To help shift the conversation on these amazing careers, we kicked off our Going PRO statewide campaign. It is designed to help change the conversation and shatter stereotypes about the vast opportunities available. Going PRO, coupled with the Michigan Department of Education’s Top 10 in 10 plan, creates a unique driving force toward solving this statewide issue.

It takes a new approach to overhaul a decades-old view. It also takes a team of inspired partners. We have that.

As we continue to work toward a more prosperous future for our state, we must challenge the traditional way of thinking. Michigan is leading the pack in so many ways and we’ve come a long way in just a few short years. Setting in place these plans will help prepare our state and all Michiganders for jobs now and well into the future.

Roger Curtis is director of the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development. Brian Whiston is Michigan’s state superintendent.