Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

May 2, 2013

Phil Power: Labor market is off the track

Paul Hillegonds, who these days is a vice president at DTE Energy, is one of Michigan’s most plugged-in and thoughtful people.

Whenever something valuable and useful is going on in our state, Paul, a former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, is likely to be right in the thick of it.

Which is why I was startled last week when he got up at the Governor’s Education Summit and told a story about his son, a junior majoring in economics at the University of Michigan. Paul had asked his son about his career path after graduation.

When the young man said he didn’t really know, Paul arranged for him to talk with a private career counselor for some useful advice.

If somebody as knowledgeable and well-connected as Paul Hillegonds needs a counselor to get career help for his son, something is really off the track with Michigan’s labor market.

In his opening address to the conference, Gov. Rick Snyder said our system linking student education from schools and colleges with in-demand careers is essentially broken. “For our most precious asset,” he said, “we’ve built a system that doesn’t work anymore.

“You’re doing a great job giving them knowledge, but then you’re letting them go out (without exposure to career choices).”

That’s sadly been the case for years. Simply put, there’s yawning disconnect in the labor market between the supply side — schools, community colleges, universities — and the demand side, represented by employers clamoring for skilled workers.

In many ways, educators in Michigan remind me of Henry Ford’s famous description of a supply-driven industry: “You can have a car in any color you want, just as long as it’s black.” That worked just fine, till competitors started offering different colors.

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