Michigan’s economic future hinges on our state’s ability to attract good jobs and investments — and no factor is more critical in that endeavor than having an educated and trained workforce. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recognizes that, and it’s reflected in the new state budget that passed last Friday with overwhelming bipartisan support.
The quality of a state’s workforce is the top factor that companies consider when deciding where to locate operations, according to Site Selection Magazine’s annual survey of corporate executives. Career readiness is even more important than infrastructure, corporate tax rates, incentive programs or labor costs, according to executives.
But due to more than a decade of divestment in both preK-12 and higher education, Michigan lags well behind other states when it comes to having a trained and educated workforce.
“Michigan is in a race with other states for talented people to fill jobs,” says a recent Business Leaders for Michigan report. “The availability of highly skilled and educated workers will make the difference between states that excel and those that fall behind in the decades ahead.”
That’s what makes the new state budget so significant. In addition to featuring the largest investment in PreK-12 schools in Michigan’s history, the budget also includes significant boosts for our community colleges and universities. Our public institutions of higher learning play a critical role in building the educated workforce we need to build a more prosperous state for Michigan families.
Our universities are helping to educate Michigan’s next generation of leaders and innovators, and it’s crucial that we support them in any way we can. Michigan’s public universities will see up to a 5% increase in operational funding next year. They’ll also get to divvy up $300 million to reduce their retirement liabilities by almost half, allowing them to redirect resources to more student-oriented needs. What’s more, the new budget sets aside $250 million to establish a new scholarship fund to help defray costs for students who might not have otherwise been able to attend a four-year university.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s community colleges play an increasingly important role in building a trained, skilled and career-ready workforce that can attract high-tech industries to Michigan. On top of that same up to 5% ongoing increase for operations, community colleges will be able to tap into $10 million set aside for academic catchup programs, $9.2 million to boost adult enrollment, and $6 million for short-term job training for adults seeking a skills certificate.
Perhaps the most exciting thing happening regarding community colleges is the governor’s Michigan Reconnect program, which provides free tuition to Michiganders 25 or older who have a high school diploma and want to pursue an associate’s or technical degree. This program, which will receive $55 million in next year’s budget, helps provide our neighbors an opportunity to pursue their dreams, as well as significantly boost our state’s pool of trained workers.
Such a significant investment in our future should carry with it a commitment to spending taxpayer dollars wisely. Michigan has a severe educator shortage at every level, so this infusion of funding must be directed to where it can have the biggest impact: attracting and retaining high-quality higher education faculty and staff. The best path to do so is ensuring they are provided the compensation, job security and professional respect they deserve, and that their voices are heeded as the experts in helping prepare students for the workplace.
After all, the quality of an education is only as good as the quality of the educator. Michigan students deserve the best — and Michigan’s economic future depends on them having it.
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.