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Detroit Regional Chamber report reflects on Chamber advocacy

So, the Detroit Regional Chamber is worried about the Michigan Reconnect program’s slow start. In its State of Education and Talent Report, the Chamber worries about everything from the number of people who have heard of the Michigan Reconnect program to the number of high school students who are filling out the federal financial aid application.

At the same time, the Detroit Regional Chamber – which represents some of Michigan’s largest employers – is seemingly undisturbed about the nine-decade slide of Michigan’s personal income figures. (Maybe that has something to do with the number of young people who leave the state after graduation?)

It’s hard to take the Detroit Regional Chamber report seriously when its membership is largely responsible for the steep decline in the personal income of Michigan’s workforce. At one point, Michigan ranked 8th among all states for personal income. Today it ranks 39th and is poised to slide even farther. People aren’t going to community colleges because the post-graduation employment opportunities don’t generate a livable income here.

Employers in lower wage tiers are increasingly seeking workers with bachelor’s degrees, even though they aren’t willing to pay appropriate wages for these educational qualifications. Recent college graduates are leaving the state in droves in search of better income opportunities. High school graduates are enrolling less frequently in post-secondary programs in large measure because they’re unaffordable.

Community college – even when it is free – is not an option because Michigan’s two-year colleges inexplicably decided that getting people into the low-wage workforce quickly and cheaply with minimal skills is far more important than educating people in a way that enables them to enjoy sustained employment with a broader skill base that provides genuine economic stability and upward mobility.

Detroit Regional Chamber member should address low-wage issue

Increasing enrollment isn’t about reducing the cost of an education. It’s about increasing the return on investment for the people who enroll. That means balancing the needs of the workforce to earn a living wage against the desire of Detroit Regional Chamber members to pay their workers as little as possible.

Michigan’s community colleges have tried to accommodate the employers, so this is where we are. 39th in personal income, the steepest declines in post-secondary enrollment, unemployment that is chronically higher than the national average, one of the highest outbound migration rates of all states, and a Chamber-funded legislature that’s fighting a minimum wage increase tooth and nail.

It is time to deprecate this “partnership” with Michigan’s employers to better focus on addressing the needs of post-secondary students. The students pay for their education. They deserve to receive clear benefits of that investment, including appropriate compensation, a more complete education, and options for completing a degree in a reasonable amount of time and at a reasonable cost.

Until the Detroit Regional Chamber is willing to acknowledge that its members must pay wages and provide benefits that are competitive with employers in other states, the talent drain here will continue, the personal income level will decline more, and high school students without the family resources to attend college will continue to work (and earn) below their potential.

Photo Credit: Detroit Regional Chamber, via Flickr