New study highlights an old problem with Michigan’s workforce

Rochelle Riley|Detroit Free Press

A coalition of Michigan community, social service and educational agencies spent seven months studying the state’s workforce and talent pool.

What they found is this: Michigan is in trouble.

A large number of Michigan adult workers with a willingness to work hard and an eagerness to learn don’t have the skills to do so, the Workforce Development Coalition study found.

“We were concerned about the high number of unskilled workers in Michigan,” said Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Human Services, the nonprofit, nonpartisan policy group that advocates for economic security for the state’s poor. “It’s a fact that many workers lack not only occupational skills, which keeps them stuck in low-wage work, but they lack the basic skills necessary to acquire occupational skills.”

Ruark said that a low-wage worker in Michigan who might want to get a degree from a community college to get a better job often has so many deficiencies in reading and math that it is extremely difficult to do so.

“It means a lot of remediation,” he said, adding that many students drop out.

The report, which was released today, was developed by an assortment of organizations that included Focus: HOPE, Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, Michigan Association of United Ways, SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments), Reading Works and the League.

There is nothing in the study that has not been previously reported. But its mere existence helps sound an alarm that began ringing decades ago and got real loud during the auto industry crisis two years ago, alerting the state that some workers’ skill-readiness and functional literacy were too low for them to get jobs that could sustain their families. Many laid-off auto workers were ineligible to enter federal job training programs because those programs required a sixth-grade reading level.

We need to shout from the rooftops any clear-thinking pronouncements that point out what the state must work to improve its economy: Prepare the workforce. That is Job One for Gov. Rick Snyder, who must focus all the relentless positive action he can muster toward that goal if he is to convince potential companies and corporations to move to Michigan.

The MLHS report calls for specific solutions to some very specific problems, including:

— Developing a set of statewide strategies to improve adult reading, writing, math and English skills. Currently, a third of Michigan’s workers :are below high school graduation level in at least one basic skill such as literacy, writing, math or English.

–Developing a P-20 (preschool through age 20) education system that will track data and provide a clearer picture of how the state’s children are learning

— Helping cities become part of regional partnerships and help fund them, especially those that offer effective career pathways programs.

— Investing in child care and transportation programs that make holding a job possible for Michiganders who cannot work now because those things are lacking.

— Encouraging or mandating personal leave and flexible family schedules that make it easier for workers with children to stay on the job.

— Removing barriers to former inmates being able to work (rather than return to prison)

— Increasing the amount of money the state spends on adult education. The coalition calls for restoring the money to $80 million a year, the level of state funding in 2001. That would be up from around $22 million now.

The state needs to spend $200 million on effective, regulated programs. That’s not the report talking. That’s me. And that represents about one-fifth of what state officials warned in a 2009 study would be necessary to raise up the third of Michigan’s workers who read below a sixth grade level.

The report also calls for a needed shift in thinking by state educators, legislators and other leaders.

1) The old reality, the report says, was that manufacturing was the state economy’s mainstay. The new reality, the report says, is that service sector skills are giving manufacturing a run for its money. (Manufacturing still was responsible for 20% of the state’s gross domestic product in 2010, but manufacturing jobs dropped from 19% in 2000 to 13% in 2011. Health services and education jobs, meanwhile, grew from 11% to 16%. )

2) The old reality is that workers do not need postsecondary training to get a job in the auto industry. The new reality is that such jobs increasingly require postsecondary education.

3) The old reality is that most postsecondary students are 18-22 years old. The new reality is that more and more college students are older, and some are supporting families.

The most important role the new study plays is that it reminds those in charge that this problem of under-skilled workers isn’t going away.

Until we make it go away.

And then it might be easier to make companies come to stay.



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