Tuition-free degrees

A student at Northwestern Michigan College lines up a laser in a photonics class, which incorporates biomedicine, information technology, green energy and manufacturing.

TRAVERSE CITY — It's no secret that Michigan is short on people to fill high-paying, high-demand skilled and professional trades jobs.

A new plan being touted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer seeks to ensure that the state's workforce has the skills necessary to fill those positions.

Michigan Reconnect, presented last month as part of Whitmer's budget, would provide tuition-free certificates or associate's degrees in high-demand industries for people 25 and older. Under the program, the state would pay tuition and fees that are not covered by Pell grants or other state assistance.

"Talk to any business person and one of the things they say is, 'We can't find people to hire,'" said Timothy Nelson, president of Northwestern Michigan College. "We have to do more to close the skills gap ... It's a big need for the state, and community colleges are in position to help figure out how to meet that need."

Whitmer's goal is to increase the number of Michigan residents with a post-secondary education credential to 60 percent by 2030. Currently, about 44 percent of residents have that credential, putting the state in 36th place when compared to the rest of the country.

According to the state's Talent and Economic Development department, there are 15,000 new skilled trades jobs being added annually in Michigan, with a total of 47,000 job openings in skilled trades expected every year through 2026.

In all, a total of 545,000 skilled and professional trades jobs are expected to open in Michigan through 2026, both through retirements of baby boomers, turnover and the growing demand, said Erica Quealy, communications director for TED.

The jobs are in high-demand industries such as health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing, construction and automotive.

Gina Stein, senior clinical recruiter for Munson Healthcare, said some of the skilled positions at the hospital can be hard to fill, such as medical assistants, sonographers and pharmacy technicians.

Whitmer's program would help funnel people into those careers, she said. Any financial assistance a student can get is also a huge benefit, she said.

Michigan Reconnect is aimed at the nearly 1.3 million people in Michigan who have some college credits but no certificate or degree, Nelson said.

Those people tend to be a little older, may be supporting families and are already employed.

"My belief is that you have to find different ways to serve that population, which has different needs and characteristics than someone coming out of high school," Nelson said.

Education and training would be provided by apprenticeship programs, nonprofit institutions that offer certificates, and by Michigan's 28 public community colleges — all of which have seen steadily decreasing enrollment over the last eight years.

NMC saw its highest enrollment ever in 2010, during the recession that followed the 2007-2008 financial crisis. But from 2010 until fall 2018, the number of credit hours being taken at NMC has fallen by 36 percent, which is also the state average, said Todd Neibauer, vice president of student services and technology.

"This kind of data mirrors the unemployment rate, so as that goes down community colleges will get fewer students," Neibauer said.

Within that statistic, the greatest decline has been seen in those 21 and older, he said.

"In Michigan we have a lot of people in that age range that haven't completed their post-secondary education," Neibauer said. "Those are the ones (Whitmer) is looking at."

The numbers, in part, reflect the number of traditional college students that are out there and the educational institution infrastructure of Michigan, Nelson said.

"It's a big infrastructure for an aging and shrinking population," Nelson said.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the number of people in Michigan who have some college credits but no certificate or degree. That number is 1.3 million people. — April 11, 2019