When it comes to having a 21st-century workforce, Southeast Michigan is in the midst of a “perfect storm.”
During years of economic decline, Michigan struggled to keep its residents educated and trained for the modern workplace. Now that the economy is in recovery and new job openings are finally emerging, there are not enough qualified young people left to fill them.
On top of this, the skilled workforce in Southeast Michigan is aging rapidly. Even in sectors that people tend to associate with a millennial workforce, such as information technology, as well as in the crucial sectors of health care, design, and engineering, nearly one in five employees is over the age of 55.
Without focused effort to address these forces, the region will face a generation of under- and unemployed people, and an exodus of companies that will leave for regions with presumably more prepared workforces.
Michigan needs to close the gap between hiring demand and worker supply: a solution is to educate and train young people to take over these high-skilled jobs.
But before career training even becomes a relevant conversation, younger generations need to know these jobs actually exist.
For a number of reasons, it can be very difficult for students to get career advice and information that truly matches employer demand in the region.
With an average ratio of around 700 to 1, school counselors in Southeast Michigan are overwhelmed and cannot possibly know about all the different career options out there. And most influencers (parents, teachers, relatives, friends) have no experience in some of the region’s fastest-growing fields, so they cannot help much either.
Then, of course, if students have heard of jobs in IT, health care, and the skilled trades, they have usually heard negativity. Whether it has been a cultural emphasis on college at the expense of the skilled trades, or bad experiences passed along from previous hard times, certain fields have acquired a definite stigma.
Right now, Michigan is stuck: Well-paying, stable jobs are going unfilled, young people are not getting the job information they need, and the entire state’s economy is suffering because of it.
So what’s the Next Idea?
Many of Michigan’s high-demand jobs have strong salaries, benefits, and room for advancement. And having strong capacity in IT, health care, and skilled trades will benefit everyone in the state, but it is necessary to connect more young people to these fields.
K-12 schools, postsecondary education and workforce development organizations, business and philanthropic leaders, and other partners have come together to try to do something about this in Southeast Michigan.
The MI Bright Future project uses a software platform that is designed to help middle and high school students learn more about college and careers, gain real-world experience in various fields, and become better connected to the business community that will employ them in the future.
The software allows students to explore careers right from their classroom desks. Companies can post opportunities such as tours, job shadowing, internships, apprenticeships, and events, and also interact with students directly through secure online discussion boards that offer information and guidance. This is where the magic happens: by integrating MI Bright Future into students’ required education and career planning processes, students will gain first-hand awareness of high-demand careers through work-based learning experiences directly with employers.
In order to meet employers where they are, MI Bright Future lets them decide just how involved they want to be, allowing for flexibility in their level of community engagement. While some may be ready now to take on young workers and interns to give them direct experience, others may be ready for something simpler and less time consuming, like a site tour or classroom presentation.
In Michigan, a pilot of MI Bright Future is launching in Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, and St. Clair Counties for the 2015-2016 school year. The pilot program has the capacity to reach more than 167,000 students in Southeast Michigan. When it expands region-wide, another 70,000 will be able to participate.
A statewide expansion of this effort could put Michigan on the same stage as states like Ohio, which are touting their efforts to better use technology to engage youth in high-demand careers, and cities like Boston, where every high school has a corporate sponsor that supports career and college readiness.
There is strong evidence that this approach will work. In North Carolina, the program was so successful that it grew from 8,000 students in 2005 to over 500,000 by 2009. Online school-to-job pipeline programs have also successfully launched in regions and counties in Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Delaware, with many of them considering further expansion. Program-related research in some of these areas has shown the approach results in improved test scores, more student focus in school, enhanced educational attainment, and a better understanding of career choices.
MI Bright Future is not about outsourcing the job of a school counselor onto the private sector. It is about building bridges between students and employers and making sure that all hands are on deck to inform students about the important career and education choices they face. It is about recognizing that something must be done now to address the “perfect storm”—the skills gap—that faces the state right now. And it is an example of how public institutions, non-profits and businesses can collaborate through a 21st-century solution, integrating technology and process improvement, in a way that stands to benefit everyone in Michigan.
Lisa Katz is executive director of the Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) for Southeast Michigan.