As Michigan Works! conference closes, workforce leaders agree new education methods key to fighting high unemployment

David Muller| MLive

DETROIT, MI – Michigan’s jobless rate has improved over its pitiful 14.2 percent rate three years ago but still remains high at 9 percent, and an association tasked with helping people land jobs in the state says the emphasis still needs to be on education. But higher learning needs to play a different role in the workforce today than it has in yester years.

“There’s a different skillset that’s needed,” Michigan Works! CEO Luann Dunsford told MLive today as the association wrapped up its 25thannual Michigan Works! For People conference in Detroit. “We want the parents of our state to know, and children of our state to know, and anyone out there seeking a job, that you must go out and seek education.”

That education may take on new forms, she said, as professions such as welding diversify their needs into things like computer use.

And businesses, educational institutions and others need to start getting creative with what form that education takes, workforce leaders agreed on Tuesday.

Ken Rogers, executive director of Automation Alley, told a roundtable discussion at the conference about a visit to China, in which he toured a rope assembly line. He asked his guide why the factory didn’t just automate the process. If it did, his guide told him, it would adversely affect the 27,000 workers who live on site.

“They would all go back to the fields,” Rogers said. “Here they have a house, they have some food, they have some healthcare, all minor, but they do have some sustenance.”

Meanwhile, down the road from the factory, a university is educating hundreds of engineers and scientists “trying to compete with us on the top end,” Rogers said.

“These countries are in a different model than we are as they emerge forward, but they’re taking economic resources and saying, ‘we have to focus it on higher education, we have to have a smarter society.'”

Later in the discussion, Rogers suggested community colleges develop specific programs specific to larger employers, working with the local businesses.

Rob Fowler, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said innovation and entrepreneurism could also play a large role in fighting high unemployment.

“I think the fastest way out of poverty is not education, it’s entrepreneurship,” he said. “It may not be the most certain way, but it’s the fastest way.”

Yesterday at the conference, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis heralded the Obama administration’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which gives financial and educational support to workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition.

She called for more federal aid through the $50 million program. She also said four-year degrees should not be the main focus of programs like the TAA, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Dunsford said today that dvleoping alternative skillsets was a key point the hundreds of conference attendees are likely to take away from this year’s event.

“There has been a very high level conversation on what it takes to compete in the workforce, and the consensus is education,” Dunsford said. “High school education must happen, college education can happen, but there are also other avenues that can be pursued and that can result in a very good paying job.”

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