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The Mackinac Policy Conference kicks off Tuesday, and expect to hear the following words a lot: talent, future and workforce.

The Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual confab on Mackinac Island has frequently featured discussions about improving Michigan’s schools, with a focus on the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The conversation is adding gears this year, as business and political leaders are sounding the alarm of a looming talent shortage and the necessity of making Michigan more competitive.

“The theme is primarily around preparing for skills of the future,” says Sandy Baruah is president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

One of the chamber’s three main topics at this year’s conference is the question: “Is Michigan prepared?”

Related sessions include:

  • Preparing Michigan Students for the Future of Work (Wednesday)
  • Training for the Future: Aligning Michigan's Industry and Workforce Needs (Wednesday)
  • Upping Michigan's Talent Game: Attracting and Retaining STEM Professionals (Thursday)
  • Is Michigan Prepared? Challenges and Opportunities for Future Growth (Thursday)
  • The Future of Work in Michigan: Partnerships Pave the Way to Prosperity (Thursday)
  • Detroit's New Era of Collaboration on Education (Thursday)
  • John B. King Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust and former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama, will also offer a keynote address on Thursday.

Michigan-based Education Trust-Midwest will also be on hand, working to educate conference attendees about the shortfalls facing the state’s students, says Brian Gutman, external relations director of the school reform advocacy organization.

There are other conversations that will be happening outside of the main program. For instance, on Tuesday afternoon the chamber is hosting an event with leaders in higher education about ways to boost the number of Detroit residents who hold a higher degree or high-skill credential. Emily House, chief research officer at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, will be on the island to share what has worked in that state’s “drive to 55” by 2025 goal of higher ed achievement.

“These are initiatives to get students into the workforce,” House told me recently. “It’s not just about getting a degree for the sake of getting a degree.”

That’s a message that will resonate with many employers in Michigan, as they struggle to find employees with the skills they require.

And the business community is not standing on the sidelines. Companies are starting to take an active role and partnering directly with schools and other organizations.

Their need for skilled workers has paved the way for some innovative partnerships. Take a look at Detroit’s Randolph Career and Technical Center, which opened last year after an extensive $10 million renovation. DTE Energy helped lead the way on the project and collaborated with DPSCD, the mayor’s office, unions and other businesses. The school focuses on a variety of construction and skilled trades, and it’s wonderful to see students learning hands-on skills that could likely turn into well-paying jobs.

That project’s success has encouraged further investment. Last month, Quicken Loans and Bedrock announced their commitment to refurbishing another career tech school in Detroit that had fallen into disrepair and suffered from dwindling enrollment. Breithaupt Career and Technical School will provide courses in hospitality, cosmetology and automotive trades.

Similarly, this week Quicken Loans said it would train 15,000 Detroit students in computer science in the next five years.

“Creating jobs and opportunity is a major part of our mission in Detroit,” stated Laura Grannemann, vice president of strategic investments for the Quicken Loans Community Investment Fund. “We are hyper-focused on building education programs that will prepare Detroit students today for the jobs of tomorrow.”

That kind of leadership from the business community could also help drive broader changes to the state’s ailing K-12 schools and push for policies that could help boost Michigan’s lagging student achievement.

Business Leaders for Michigan has started taking a more active role in advocating for these kinds of reforms, and that’s a positive development. Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of BLM, points to states like Massachusetts and Tennessee, where business groups led sweeping school reforms. Through those efforts, both states are upheld as models.

“The states that have really done the best aligned along an agenda and stuck with it beyond election cycles,” Rothwell says. “If there are some issues we can work on together, we can make a heck of a lot of progress.”

BLM, along with the Detroit Chamber and representatives from other business, philanthropic and labor groups, had planned to announce a broad coalition of support behind education reform. But that Thursday morning announcement has been postponed for now, according to organizers. That’s unfortunate, as this conference would have been a good time for business leaders to make a unified call for change.

Expect an announcement in the coming weeks, however.

“There is momentum building,” Rothwell says.

ijacques@detroitnews.com

 

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