Opinion: Why Michigan should invest in people

By Tom Watkins

Gov. Rick Snyder has sounded the alarm that our next governor will ultimately have to answer: “Michigan will have more than 811,000 career openings to fill through 2024 in fields that are facing a talent shortage.”

The problem is there are not enough people in Michigan or the nation to fill these vacancies, given the country’s current full employment environment where many are gainfully employed.

Governor Rick Snyder speaks to a large crowd at the Michigan Science Center about the Marshall Plan for developing talent in Detroit on February 22, 2018.

In Snyder’s final months in office, he has kicked off the Marshall Plan for Talent — a planned partnership between educators, employers, and other stakeholders to transform Michigan’s talent pipeline and redesign the ways we invest, develop and attract talent in our state.

Michigan’s current talent shortage across multiple industries is the single greatest threat to the state’s continued economic recovery.

Snyder deserves credit for the clarion call, but the financial investment from him and the state Legislature is barely a down payment on what will be required. The Marshall Plan is a beginning but much more is needed in order to assure that Michigan is preparing our existing workforce and student population for our future and not our past. 

Consumer debt, particularly millennial student college debt, is an anchor around the neck. In the first quarter of 2017, consumer debt rose to $12.73 trillion, exceeding its peak in the third quarter of 2008. Student loans account for 10.6 percent of that total, up from 3.3 percent in 2003. 

These massive student loans are a mounting burden that can stifle economic growth by preventing young Americans from getting on with their lives, taking jobs in other states, buying homes, starting a family or spending on big-ticket consumer items, perhaps holding back further U.S. economic growth. 

In response to rising levels of college loan debt and the staggering workforce shortages Michigan is facing, the state should consider establishing a loan forgiveness program to millennials targeting people with specific skills in shortage areas as an incentive to stay or move to Michigan.

According to the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development, we have severe shortages in the following fields: 

  • IT and computer science
  • Manufacturing
  • Health care
  • Other professional trades
  • Business 

Imagine if we were to develop an attractive student loan forgiveness package. Perhaps even a private program offering tax incentives to businesses that pay off student debt for skill shortage areas along the lines of incentive packages that various states offered Amazon by the Ilitch and Gilbert families. I suspect we would be flooded with millennial talent. 

The need to develop one’s skills and manage transitions between jobs and career will continue to increase as automation, particularly AI (artificial intelligence) washes over our state and nation. Providing incentives for employers and employees to create a personalized workforce, retraining, and tax-free savings accounts can be used to upgrade worker skills that allow us to remain competitive in a changing world.

Talent truly does matter. The individual, city, region, state, and nation with the most talent wins in our hyper-competitive, technologically-driven, global knowledge economy.

Tom Watkins served as Michigan’s superintendent of schools from 2001-2005