Editorial: 'Reconnect' workers with a better future

The Detroit News

Top business leaders in Michigan are raising the alarm over a lack of skilled workers, and they are supporting a plan from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that could help alleviate the shortage. Lawmakers should listen to what they have to say.

Although we’re skeptical of new government programs that claim to solve workforce woes, the Michigan Reconnect program Whitmer proposed in her State of the State address is modeled after one in Tennessee that is boasting good results. 

Michigan Reconnect would offer adults over 25 a tuition-free path to certification or an associate degree.

And she’s hoping to jump-start the program with existing funds, which should make the proposal more palatable to the Republican-controlled Legislature. 

Michigan Reconnect would offer adults over 25 a tuition-free path to certification or an associate degree. Whitmer had wanted to pair this program with a broader MI Opportunity scholarship that would offer tuition-free community college to all high school graduates that meet basic requirements. The goal is to move the state’s postsecondary attainment to 60% from the current 45% within 10 years.

“Free” community college for all is going to be a harder sell to lawmakers, especially in light of Whitmer’s push to secure road funding in the budget. 

But Reconnect has a better chance.

That’s why presidents and CEOs of top business groups, including Business Leaders for Michigan, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Association of Michigan and Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, are advocating lawmakers approve the program. 

The governor’s Michigan prosperity team wants legislative leaders to take $60 million in unspent funding in the Marshall Plan for Talent, a collaborative job-training effort former Gov. Rick Snyder spearheaded last year, and apply it to the Reconnect program. If the funding is approved for fiscal year 2020, then the program could start enrolling adults next fall. 

If it isn’t, that means a delay of at least another two years, which business leaders say is too long given the current skills gap. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks about the 'Going Pro' campaign highlighting occupations and industries with job opportunities at a press conference at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan on July 8, 2019.

In a recent letter to lawmakers, the business leaders wrote the following: “Reconnect will have an enormous and immediate impact on both employers and employees which is exactly what our state needs...Michigan needs 175,000 new university graduates, and 126,000 new certificate/associate graduates by 2020. 

“And demand for a skilled workforce will only increase in the future.  It is time to get aggressive in addressing our state’s skills gap.”

In April, Republicans in the House and Senate introduced bills in support of Reconnect, so the process has started.

According to Whitmer’s prosperity adviser Doug Ross, Reconnect could reach as many as 300,000 adults without college degrees. First year costs are estimated at $30 million for 25,000-30,000 enrollees; the program would ramp up the second year with a goal of 50,000 enrollees. The $60 million in existing funds would cover the full first year and a half of the second year’s expenses.

If the program is approved, the state will need to track the results to ensure it’s meeting expectations and delivering businesses the workers they need. But it seems a reasonable request, and deserves bipartisan support.