Opinion: Prioritize program to boost Michigan's economy

Jeff Donofrio

Two months ago, as I took the reins at the newly created Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, I asked a group of economists to help define what the state might look like over the next 20 years. What they painted was the picture of a state whose future prosperity and competitiveness globally would depend largely on winning the race for talent. 

During my time leading workforce development in Detroit, I heard about the talent gap over and over as we worked to bring new jobs to Michigan — from Amazon, FCA and countless others. Michigan’s talent, or lack thereof, will largely determine our success or failure in landing the next tech giant, growing our hometown industries and creating pathways to good paying jobs. 

Today, a strong manufacturing sector is no longer a guarantee of widely shared prosperity in Michigan — especially for those with only a high school diploma. Good paying jobs increasingly require a college degree or an industry-recognized credential. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Michigan’s average income level has fallen to the bottom third among states, right in line with where our level of post-secondary education level sits.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the 2019 NAACP convention in Detroit, Monday.

That is why Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set the goal of helping 60% of adults obtain a college degree or certificate by 2030, from where it sits at 45% today.

One of the ways for Michigan to get there is borrowed from the Republican idea first implemented in Tennessee. The Michigan Reconnect program, which the governor proposed earlier this year, would allow our state to go toe to toe with our most aggressive competitors by helping to up-skill and retrain adults without a college credential. The program provides a tuition-free path to community college for Michiganians 25 and older, helping them earn a high-quality certificate or associates degree.

Michigan Reconnect will help adults improve their skills, get better jobs and increase their incomes, offering a pathway to economic mobility for many who have been left behind in a rapidly changing economy. This is especially true for those who, while employed today, worry about losing a job in the future because of an economic downturn or a shift in the nature of their work. Developing a new set of skills before disaster hits could be the difference between rise and ruin for thousands of families across our state. 

Business, labor, community colleges, K-12 organizations and a variety of community organizations have all endorsed the program so that Michiganians can begin enrolling at their local community colleges early as next August. And there’s strong bipartisan support for the program, with Republican sponsors leading the charge in the Legislature.

The program is what we are all looking for in this time of political division: a bipartisan proposal with business, labor and education support that responds to a critical state economic need and provides the three million Michigan adults without a college degree the opportunity to get a credential that can improve their lives.

Michigan Reconnect is not only a priority for Whitmer, it’s a priority for expanding economic opportunity and prosperity for all Michiganians to succeed. We urge legislators to come back to the table and support a supplemental budget that includes Michigan Reconnect and makes Michigan’s economic competitiveness a top priority. 

Jeff Donofrio is director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.