Boost Detroit’s talent pipeline

Ashley Johnson

Amazon’s decision to pass on Detroit for a second headquarters should be a wake-up call that we must increase our percentages of adults in Detroit and Michigan with high-quality postsecondary education credentials and degrees — a vital ingredient to compete for jobs of the future.

Just look at the some of the cities that made Amazon’s top 20 list of finalists.

About 40 percent of adults in Columbus, Ohio, have an associate degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Chicago and Pittsburgh, 43 percent have an associate degree or higher. Atlanta has a 44 percent degree attainment rate. For the Detroit region as a whole, 38 percent of adults over 25 have an associate degree or higher. In the city of Detroit, just 14 percent of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Statewide, 43 percent of adults in Michigan have a postsecondary credential or degree, according to the Lumina Foundation. Nationally, 35 other states have a higher percentage of adults with postsecondary education.

We need more highly-skilled computer programmers. We need more skilled nurses. We need more journeyman plumbers. We need more certificate-carrying coders.

Simply put, we need more of everything.

Our college-educated talent pipeline is just not as big as it needs to be to meet the needs of Amazon’s demand of filling 50,000 tech worker jobs over the next decade.

We must do better. And that starts by getting more high school students to pursue postsecondary educational opportunities for two-year and four-year degrees, skilled trades, apprenticeships and technical education certificates.

To do that, we need to focus on initiatives that improve access to higher education by addressing college affordability, ensuring our students are academically prepared for postsecondary education, and getting more students exposed to career paths, especially in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) so that we’re better positioned for the next Amazon to come along.

At the Detroit College Access Network, our mission is to increase postsecondary readiness, enrollment, and attainment so that all students in Detroit can achieve their educational dreams. DCAN is the coordinating body of cross-sector leaders and organizations in Detroit working together to ensure all Detroit students have the opportunity to attend college. We work to connect existing Detroit high school educators, high school counselors, and college access advisers with best practice resources, programs and tools to support them with creating a college-going culture in their school buildings that boost college enrollment and completion rates among Detroit students.

We’re in the middle of our Detroit Drives FAFSA Campaign to get Detroit high school seniors to complete federal financial aid forms that are a vital step toward going to college. Our goal is to have 65 percent of all graduating high school seniors in Detroit complete a FAFSA form by March 1.

While there was disappointment that Detroit didn’t make Amazon’s first cut, it shouldn’t deter us. Instead, it should make us more determined to improve our education system and to support more students and families with pursuing a high quality postsecondary degree that leads to a career path that will not only support their families with attaining a livable wage, but will help the Detroit region build the workforce pipeline needed to compete for jobs of the future. Access to high quality postsecondary education is both a private and public good and good for business and the Detroit region as a whole.

Ashley Johnson is executive director of Detroit College Access Network.