Panelists agree: Bridging state’s talent gap vital to its economic future
Michigan executives believe that bridging the educational gap is essential to the state's economic future. The Detroit News
Education, business and government leaders explore potential solutions to looming crisis.
Michigan is at a talent pipeline crossroads. Employers can’t fill jobs because of the lack of a sufficiently skilled workforce.
Projections by the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives show Michigan will experience a Professional Trades workforce gap of more than 811,000 openings through 2024 in several high-demand, high-wage careers in the information technology and computer science, health care, manufacturing and other business and Professional Trades industries.
To help address the issue, the Talent and Economic Development Department of Michigan brought together a multitalented panel of education, business and economic and professional development leaders to explore the issue from a variety of angles.
In a lively discussion moderated by Lansing State Journal Editor Stephanie Angel, panelists offered insights into the causes of and potential solutions to filling the gaps in Michigan’s talent pipeline.
- Dr. Rose Bellanca, president, Washtenaw Community College
- Roger Curtis, director, Talent and Economic Development Department of Michigan
- Marcia Black-Watson, division administrator, Michigan Talent Investment Agency
- Janene Erne, regional apprenticeship administrator, Workforce Intelligence Network
- Michael Flowers, executive director of human resources and training, Lansing Board of Water & Light
- State Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso, chair of the Michigan House Committee on Workforce and Talent Development
- Bob Trezise, president and CEO, Lansing Economic Area Partnership
- Edythe Hatter-Williams, chief executive officer, Capital Area Michigan Works!
- Nick Krueger, chair of the Career and Technical Education Department, Owosso High School
- Carey Oberlin, human resource manager, Cameron Tool Corp. of Lansing
- Patrick Osborne, apprentice at Cameron Tool Corp. of Lansing
Following are highlights of the discussion. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
According to government estimates, the U.S. economy will need 100,000 IT workers every year for the next 10 years. And with baby boomers retiring and continued economic growth, we'll need to fill 3.5 million manufacturing jobs by 2025.
Mr. Curtis, as director of the state’s Talent and Economic Development Department, describe some of the ways talent gaps in technology and manufacturing are affecting, and will continue to affect, businesses and our communities.
(The talent gap) is the largest issue we face in the state right now. Talent has become the new currency in economic development, and the state that figures out the best educational system and talent development system is going to be the winner. We knew we had a talent gap before Amazon’s HQ2 efforts with the city of Detroit. I think our work in that really magnified the breadth and depth and scope of the issue is even far bigger than what we knew here in the state because we did a much deeper data dive. And that’s when the governor and the legislators said we need to do a lot more.
We have some great programs already in place, but that was the birth of the Marshall Plan. Because the reality is there will be another Amazon, and we need to be ready for that. But just as important for the existing businesses in Michigan is making sure that we have the talent for them so people who are already living here don’t leave the state.
You mentioned manufacturing and IT, but it’s also health care, construction, agriculture, energy — almost every industry has been impacted.
Rep. Frederick, what happens if we don’t push for workforce development programs in the state?
If we do nothing, we have a catastrophe coming. If we do everything, and we get the talent problem addressed with the capacity we have, it’s still going to be a huge problem. You can see where the average age in things like agriculture and manufacturing is in the high 50s.
I’ve talked to numerous people traveling around the state who are hanging on to jobs. They wanted to retire, but they don’t have anybody coming up beneath them. The idea of having those pipelines established and nurturing an interest in these careers is vital. But the numbers don’t lie — we have a problem no matter what we do. It’s just a question of how much of a scale of a problem we have.
Now, part of that problem, I think, is Michigan’s lack of population growth. Talk a little bit about that and how the state can combat that.
Well, I think it’s an additional angle to look at as far as talent development goes in our state. I think there’s a sort of a formula that involves placemaking, developing infrastructure — meaning roads and schools — and building great cities with skyline changes and parks and trails. The evidence is that is equally important as the job itself. The formula says that placemaking is really primarily what attracts and retains talent. And then, of course, if you have that talent, then naturally you have business growth and even business attraction. Beyond the great work that’s being done already in workforce development, you have to think about (quality of life) somewhat as an add-on. In my job trying to recruit businesses, it’s kind of tough against the Southern states and the East and West Coast. I’m just being realistic about it.
Nick, you work with high school kids, and Edythe, you work with adults who are trying to get into job placement. What are some of the things you’re doing and that you can do to funnel people to the types of jobs that are in high demand in Michigan?
In our area (with Owosso Public Schools) between Lansing and Flint, we’re between two different regions. We’ve added CTE programs because it’s been an interest to our students with the agricultural system in place. That’s been a fast-growing program for our students. We need agriculture, and we’ve got students that are interested in it, so we’ve taken the time to get our students involved. We’ve also added programs like engineering.
Our goal at the high school level is to say, “This is what’s available to you. This is how we can get there, but it may not be for you.” That’s hopefully the goal of every high school and middle school out there — to let kids experience what these careers are before they get into the upper levels and get into postsecondary, where they’re having to pay for it, and then we deal with the college debt issue and the situations where kids are changing majors multiple times throughout their education process.
Here in the capital region, we have a few things going on. The T3: Teach. Talent. Thrive initiative is focused on young folks. Under T3, the MiCareerQuest program planned for next April will hopefully get 25 to 30 businesses in one location with hands-on equipment relevant to their industry. For example, in the medical industry, they could be bringing in dummies to practice CPR on. In manufacturing, they may bring in CNC operators or virtual welders. Our goal is to have all eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders have the opportunity to rotate through each of the quadrants of industries so that they can get an idea of the jobs that are available in the tri-county region (Ingham, Eaton and Clinton). Some just require a high school diploma or a GED. Some require advanced training. And some require a degree. It’s been done successfully in other regions, and so we are happy to be able to look at bringing that to our region for the first time.
There’s a lot of conversation about getting kids young and showing them the options. Talk a little bit about adults who are displaced or need to be retrained. What are the challenges in that?
I think the community colleges play a huge role, not just with the high school students that want to move on in a postsecondary way, but also the adults. Community colleges are probably one of the most misunderstood entities in the educational system, and the opportunities that are there to utilize them I don't think are fully being maximized.
We work closely with Michigan Works! and probably do 80% of their training. The whole purpose of a community college is to be the economic driver for the region. That’s why they were formed to begin with. When Gov. Snyder was elected, he (formed the Regional Prosperity Initiative and) divided the state into 10 regions. Washtenaw County happens to be Region 9, which encompasses six counties.
I was asked by (economic development group) Ann Arbor SPARK to lead the talent conversation. We met with all members of business and industry from Region 9, and in those conversations, we asked them, “What do you need in your talent? What do you need in the pipeline? And where do you see your business going?” And the three areas that we heard for our region were manufacturing, IT and health.
So as a community college, we focused our energy starting with the end in mind. We started the Advanced Transportation Center, and we were fortunate enough to receive a $4.5 million grant. Our college spent nearly $10 million. We completely repurposed a building so that our students — whether they were high school, college or adults coming back for retraining — were going to be trained on equipment and by educators that knew how to train for today’s work.
Our faculty had to throw away their curriculum and completely redo it. And now we have students that are working with U of M right now putting aftermarket components into automobiles. And we have something called a mobility technician certificate, (which allows students to) focus either on the automobile or on IT. There are four classes you have to take, and these are industry-certified credentials.
We did the same thing with health care — our sterile processing program, for example. These are very important jobs. They work in the operating room and sterilize the equipment, and it takes only 10 credits — like two, 15-week terms. And this is all through partnerships with these (local) hospitals. The first 15 weeks is coursework and the last 15 weeks is clinicals. And they (students) make $18 to $20 an hour immediately.
Nick, how are you connecting students with these programs?
We’ve made a concerted effort to really reach out and take students to colleges and universities. We put them on school buses, we take them to Mott Community College, we bring them to Lansing Community College for different things. And we really have to take our kids to these places because (Owosso) doesn’t have a community college.
We started that six years ago with our engineering program, and that was our goal — a talent tour. We started doing that with the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, and they had the automotive tours. And then we’d spend half a day there, and then in the afternoon, we’d go to Northwood University, we’d go to Oakland Community College, we’d go to different universities to show them what’s there. And that’s had a huge benefit for a lot of our kids. We had a huge influx of students.
What Nick is highlighting is something that some of our schools have amazing best practices at doing. But it’s also a fundamental issue of our talent gap. Part of our talent gap is a career awareness gap. The counselor ratio in our public schools is 729 students per counselor. So, if you’re a parent and you think the counselor is taking your son or daughter’s passions and their aptitudes and marrying those up to see what careers are going to be great for them, and then helping them understand the pathway to those careers — except in very limited cases — it’s not happening. That’s not the counselor’s fault; that’s just what has happened in our system.
So, we’re starting career exploration as early as possible — elementary school, even — to close the talent gap. But that is a fundamental underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
Ms. Oberlin and Mr. Flowers, can you talk a little bit about how apprenticeship programs benefit your companies?
Apprenticeships are the lifeblood of our company. We have been certified with the Department of Labor since 1978. Our founder was an apprentice and he just built that program up through the years. It’s never gone away. Even when we had the manufacturing downturn, we kept going strong. We stayed focused on automotive, and we continued our training and development, and it’s been our savior.
We have 15 apprentices right now, all at different levels, and many on the back burner getting ready to start programs. I don’t know how we would train people to build sheet metal die if we didn’t have an apprenticeship. We are a full-service tool and die shop — we do everything from design all the way to installation and customer plans. It takes us all over the world — China, South Africa, all over the United States, Mexico, Canada.
We’ve even gone as far as making our own travel class — our apprentices attend a travel class and get classroom credit under their apprenticeship for some of the work that they do internally. Our program has definitely developed over the years, and it’s a great way to train your workforce. Starting an apprenticeship is a slower path to your final employee skill level, but it’s definitely never too late to start doing that career training.
At the Board of Water & Light, we have a couple of different programs going on. We’ve been doing the 1st S.T.E.P. program for over 10 years, where we bring 12 to 15 senior high school students into our operation. Currently, we have hired over 30 of them for full-time positions. One young lady that came through our program went into an apprenticeship, finished up as an instrument control technician and makes very good money. She’s 25, doesn’t have her degree, but she has her journey worker certificate and been certified through the state of Michigan.
We have 20 classifications of apprenticeship-able positions and over 120 individuals who are either in the apprentice or the journey worker stage. We also have over 325 employees sitting in our apprenticeship pool ready to take positions within the organization. One of the things that we’ve found over the years is that if we can give employees the opportunity to move within the organization rather than moving outside of the organization, that’s a good retention tool for us. And we’ve had several employees that have gone through multiple apprenticeship programs or have taken different positions within the organization.
Mr. Osborne, can you talk about your apprenticeship experience and why you chose to go this route?
The experience at Cameron has been really pleasant. I actually went to (college) for four years and got a bachelor's degree in software engineering, so to take kind of a 180 and do something in the more manual trades made me kind of nervous. But at the same time, I do like working with my hands and I have really enjoyed it. Cameron’s program is really good. It’s starting you out at the ground level and building a good foundation to be a good die maker.
They send you to classes through Lansing Community College. They also do some in-house classwork training, as well. You learn from people that have been doing the trade for 20, 30, 40 years. You get to see and work with people who are craftsmen. They build something that they are proud of.
There are so many incredibly positive things about apprenticeships, but over half the parents and students in the state of Michigan don’t know anything about them (based on a recent statewide poll). And those who do, only 13% of the students think it’s a viable pathway. That is the symptom of a larger problem where we, as a society, all bear responsibility. We decided that we were going to sort everyone into their either-or buckets — either you’re smart enough to go to college or you’re not. That is an incredible disservice to business, to society and to the individuals.
These Professional Trades are not for the faint of brain — they are incredibly complicated. Manufacturing and construction are the stereotypical industries that everyone thinks of, but they don’t think of health care, IT, finance, agriculture, energy. But it’s all of the above and they’re all very complicated. Tool and die (workers) are artists. They’re making something from scratch. There’s a huge under-appreciation for Professional Trades and subsequently, apprenticeship opportunities as well.
That’s something all of us can play a role in, certainly with our marketing campaigns, but even around the dinner table, when we’re golfing, when we’re at church, when we’re talking to others. It’s not either-or pathways anymore — it’s multiple pathways to high-demand, high-wage careers.
(There’s) over $1.4 trillion in student debt across this country, and that’s a true national tragedy. It’s a national crisis. And we all know somebody. I know people my own age — I call it a mortgage on their back for a house they can’t live in. It limits their life and a lot of them delay their life choices.
And in that crisis, there also is opportunity. Parents want the best for their children, so when you start talking about Professional Trades — the no-debt degree — and start looking at that opportunity to say you can get all these things that Michael outlined and were outlined here by our employers, and oftentimes at minimal or no debt, it’s being paid for while you’re doing it — that, to me, is miraculous.
Maybe that’s a way that we can get back to parents who might have that caution about looking at these pathways is that your child could have a future and not have that debt. It’s really up there in people’s minds right now.
Janene, can you talk about the program that you work with and the apprenticeships that are available? Are they being fully utilized?
They’re being utilized much more than they were. We have a separate grant specifically related to apprenticeships, the Advance Michigan Center for Apprenticeship Innovation, and our goal is to demystify apprenticeships, to remove the barriers for both the employer and the apprentice. There are so many myths out there that it’s expensive, it’s time-consuming — those are absolutely untrue.
We came up with an idea of getting all the players at the table in one place at one time and bringing the employers to us. We ask for about four to six hours of their time and we create a complete registered program. We’ve done that three times now across the state, and there’s more to come.
We did a major event in Traverse City through the Michigan Educators Apprenticeship and Training Association where we had 12 employees at once, each with different numbers of apprentices they were putting in. Some were putting incumbents in, some were getting them from the community college. That got a lot of publicity nationally. It’s already been taken to South Dakota and California. People are mirroring what Michigan is doing and saying this is genius.
Marcia, can you tell us a little bit about the Marshall Plan for Talent? I know that’s something that the Department of Talent and Economic Development and Talent Investment Agency has been working on.
There are 811,000 jobs that will go unfilled through 2024 if we don’t take some different approaches. The Marshall Plan for Talent is important as a mechanism for bringing education and employers together to develop a number of different strategies that will fill skills gaps. Roger has been very successful in working with the governor and working with the legislature to identify $100 million to provide resources that will help do things like ensure that teachers are able to participate in externships and will actually support career pathways being mapped out at the local level. It will ensure that educators and employers are working together in talent consortia, and that’s what’s required to qualify for these resources.
We recognize and we seriously do thank the legislature for their support. This has been a bipartisan program. We know $100 million is really just a drop in the bucket for what we need to do. But the motivation behind the Marshall Plan, besides closing the talent gap, is to start to change the mindset of educators and employers. It rewards those who are willing to innovate, to create, to look at things differently. You would not believe how rare that is for educators and employers to sit at the table together, identify specific needs and specific solutions.
The Marshall Plan is just a catalyst that we hope will start a revolution in our state because we do believe that’s the way to go to solve the talent gap.
We’ve been talking this whole time about talent gaps, but how do we close them more quickly? Or are we going as fast as we can?
One of the programs we have is called the Going PRO Talent Fund. It allows employers to identify that customized, short-term training that they need to address their skills gaps. It provides an opportunity for them to either train an incumbent worker or to hire a new individual into those positions that they need filled today to be successful.
The Going PRO Talent Fund doesn’t pay for the entire training program, but it provides enough of an offset or an incentive to really make that investment in their talent development. It’s about developing a talent pipeline, not just the skills that are needed for today, but also looking forward three or five years and making sure the flow of talent exists. So that really takes an investment, working with the employers and with the educators to do that.
I think there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. We look back at what’s been happening, I know we’re not there yet and it’s really frustrating to realize that we have such a long way to go, but I think we’re at that tipping point right now.
Yeah, a tipping point is a great way to describe it. We have employers that never felt a responsibility to interact with our education system that are now donating pieces of equipment. These conversations are happening across all the sectors, and everybody’s acknowledging it now. Partners are coming forward, and we’re hearing everybody start to talk about layering in programs and things. I’m quite optimistic.
Going PRO has an unbelievable website. It’s phenomenal. It captures day-in-the-life videos, very high-end production of all of the major high-demand, high-wage professional careers. It talks about the salaries, the openings, the education and training needed, where you can get the education and training for those. And those videos are all done with younger folks who have gotten into those careers.
And I’d be remiss not to mention the Experience Sooner campaign, kind of a subset of Going PRO, talking specifically about all of our apprenticeship programs. The Michigan Advanced Technician Training program gets most of the attention because it is a wonderful program, but at the end of the day it’s such a small sliver of all of the apprenticeships that we have in this state — and all that we still need.
I want to thank everybody for joining us today. I think it was a wonderful conversation, and I think we should keep having it. Thank you.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.