It’s Time to Break Michigan’s Spiral

The following piece originally appeared in the education themed July/August 2013 edition of The Review magazine.  

When we talk about placemaking and job growth, the catch-phrase “knowledge-based economy” is often used as if it’s the next major evolutionary step for mankind. Well, that might be a tad lofty for the rise of humanity itself – I tend to think getting up on two legs, frontal lobe growth, and the invention of the pop tart were probably bigger Darwinian success stories – but if we’re talking about survival in the new global economy, it is indeed the next big transition we need to make if we don’t want Michigan to go the way of the Neanderthal.

Michigan’s future prosperity largely depends on how well and how quickly we make the transition from the Stone Age of old school manufacturing to the Brave New World of knowledge-based jobs and industries such as health care and technology.

Are we getting the message? Not yet, obviously. Michigan currently ranks a dismal 34th in the nation for the proportion of adults with a four-year degree. And that’s only one side of the equation. If we don’t have the resident talent base to offer as an attractant, those knowledge-based enterprises aren’t likely to set up shop here. And if they don’t set up shop here, even the talent we do have will be forced to leave in search of those jobs in other states. It’s a vicious downward spiral that is spinning us down the drain at an appallingly fast rate. In 2010, we ranked 39th in per capita income – dropping 21 states down the list in 10 years’ time. That’s a race to the bottom nobody should want to win.

Our state policy makers need to rethink some outdated formulas for economic success. The notion that business goes where the taxes and wages are lowest is only true in an economy fueled by cheap resources and an unskilled labor force. The exact opposite is true of today’s high paying knowledge-based jobs. These jobs, quite simply, go where the talented and well-educated workforce wants to be: places with a high quality of life and a high standard of living.

 Anyone who argues the old approach is still good enough only needs to look at the auto industry: sure, they’ve brought back 65,000 jobs since the Great Recession of 2009, but those jobs now pay half what they did in the Good Old Days. We shouldn’t just want more jobs. An unskilled labor force scraping by on minimum wage should not be our measure of success. We don’t want to be Southeast Asia. We should want more high-paying jobs, which require highly skilled, highly educated people to fill them.

So it’s a no-brainer that high quality education should be our new gold standard, the socioeconomic equivalent of a Holy Grail. Instead, Michigan has been hard at work disinvesting in education at an appalling rate, cutting higher education by 27 percent in the past decade.

Recently, Lansing has tackled the fiscal challenges of K-12 education through issues like union dues and the costs of teacher retirement and health care. What has been missing is a discussion on how we educate our young people to succeed. How do we prepare our students for college or trade school and then keep them in Michigan once they’ve completed their education? Some reports say over 46 percent of Michigan’s college graduates leave the state. While the latest research indicates the trend may be reversing, it’s still a fact that’s getting lost in the dollar-focused fight to “reform” our education system. We should be working on creative ways to help students succeed from kindergarten through college, and then give these successful kids a reason to stay.

There is hope. The new Michigan Competitiveness Committee in the House is looking at ideas like an income tax credit for Michigan college graduates who stay in Michigan. It is an unusual move – to publicly brainstorm about retaining talent. Yet it’s something they should be doing more frequently. It’s our best and brightest way to move Michigan forward in the new economy. And that’s knowledge we can take to the bank.