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Opinion: Skills gap proposals earn broad support

Sandy Baruah and David Hecker
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, seen presenting her budget proposal to lawmakers on March 5, has told residents she is willing to stake her political career on the road funding fight.

As presidents of the Detroit Regional Chamber and the American Federation of Teachers Michigan respectively, we don’t always agree on public policy. 

However, we do strongly agree that Michigan needs to increase the number of residents with good-paying jobs, and to close the skills gap that is threatening the future growth of our businesses.

Legislation that would do just that is now in front of the Legislature. Remarkably, in this era of partisan deadlock these proposals were developed — and have gained support — in a bipartisan manner, and were welcomed by major business organizations, labor unions, and a wide range of education and community groups across Michigan.         

The reason for this broad support in an era of divided government is that these two proposals from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — MI Opportunity and Reconnect — are investments in Michigan’s talent base. They are aimed at advancing a goal shared by the chamber, the AFT, and the governor to increase our postsecondary attainment rate from 45% to 60% by 2030. More than a half-million jobs are expected to be available over the next half decade in Michigan that require more than a high school diploma — and employers have indicated their biggest concern is that we won’t have the talent to fill them.

Postsecondary credentials and certificates have become the ticket to better-paying jobs for workers and the path to prosperity for states. Michigan is 31st in the percent of our people with college degrees and, not coincidentally, 30th in per capita income. Short of striking oil, more education and skill are how states get wealthier in the 21st century.   

MI Opportunity and Reconnect are the first steps to lift Michigan’s education attainment into the top ranks of the states — and together they send a strong message to Michiganians, young and old, that a high school education is not enough anymore to command a good-paying job.

Based on the experience of Tennessee and other states with similar programs, MI Opportunity will dramatically increase community college enrollment — Tennessee saw a 27% boost in the first year. A four-year degree may not be for everyone. Students who want to work with their hands already have access to top-notch union skilled trades programs which allow them to earn while they learn in a variety of fully funded apprenticeship programs.

However, learning beyond high school has become a necessity for success for all in the global 21st century economy. By transforming Michigan’s public education system from K-12 to K-14, MI Opportunity will help build a college-going culture. The discussion around the kitchen table will change from “can we afford to send our child to college” to “where should he/she go and what should he/she study.” 

The second MI-Opportunity path is designed to lighten the crushing college debt burden for so many middle- and lower-income families paying for four-year degrees. It offers an annual $2,500 scholarship for the first two years at a four-year college for students coming out of high school with a B-average and a family income of $80,000 or less.

MI Reconnect is for adults over 25 who have never earned a college degree but need new skills for a better-paying job. Reconnect would offer tuition-free access to any public community college to pursue an associate degree or occupational certificate, which opens many options, and prepares one well for union apprenticeship programs.        

Together, Mi Opportunity and Reconnect are critical first steps in increasing access to education for all Michiganians and ensuring our businesses can find the skilled workers they need to compete and grow, and our people have access to the education and skills needed to gain good-paying jobs. We join together in urging the Legislature to enact this important legislation.

Sandy Baruah is the president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. David Hecker is president of the America Federation of Teachers Michigan.