Our most valuable assets

07-28-2010

Last week I joined my University Research Corridor (URC) colleagues to talk about Michigan’s advanced manufacturing sector and what our three universities are doing to support it. One of the points I made was that to sustain our manufacturing base, we will need more qualified, better-educated citizens to fill these jobs.

Almost concurrently with those remarks, an important national report underscored the need to focus on higher education across the country. The College Board sounded another warning that the United States is falling behind other nations in educational attainment—a topic I’ve, naturally, been following for years.

This is something we discussed when I sat on the Lt. Governor’s Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth in 2004. That 41-member group, known as the Cherry Commission, eventually recommended 19 ways to double the number of college graduates in Michigan in 10 years. Even then we had real concerns about Michigan’s competitiveness. And after a decade of education funding stagnation, our situation as a state is little changed, even as the nation as a whole falls further behind.

The College Board also is working toward increasing the number of Americans with an associate degree or a higher level of educational attainment to 55 percent by 2025. It reported that the United States not long ago led the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a college degree. Now it’s 12th among the 36 most developed nations. It’s a matter of national competitiveness and another reason we need to assign a higher priority to education in questions of support and funding.

That challenge has much to do with the advanced manufacturing report compiled by the Anderson Economic Group for the URC, which was released last week. We can’t sustain a technology-based economy of any kind, including the kinds of manufacturing we will be doing going forward, without better-skilled workers.

In Michigan, where we boast high-tech industries and educational institutions most places can only aspire to, we’re no better than the middle of the pack in educational attainment within a national set that’s headed in the wrong direction in comparison to its own peers, according to College Board comparisons.

No matter what we do, no matter how many start-ups we spin off of our university research, without a better-educated workforce in Michigan and the United States we will never again approach the prosperity we took for granted in the second half of the last century. Without addressing this problem, we’re just painting over rust.

From my work with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the Council on Competitiveness, and other business groups, I can assure you that academics aren’t the only ones fretting about educational support and attainment. Still the basis of much of our national prosperity and security, manufacturing can’t come back from this “great recession” and rise to the challenge of overseas competition without people who are as skilled with their heads as they are with their hands.

If we in Michigan want to really learn from the fate of the automakers and fulfill the promise that manufacturing still holds for us, we need to face up to the need to address tomorrow’s problems today. That tomorrow, in many ways, is already here.

The URC report outlines some real strengths in manufacturing Michigan still enjoys, among them an engaged and innovative university research community. We in that community recognize the need to nurture a more entrepreneurial culture on campus and beyond, and we all need to work to ensure we keep higher education within reach for Michigan’s citizens.

We can’t view education as a strictly personal benefit. It’s much more than that. It’s a collective, national priority. Our greatest asset is and always will be our people, and we fail to nurture this potential at our peril.

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