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Knowledge work is the path to rebuilding Michigan’s economy

Yesterday, I wrote about the tech sector’s need for a better approach to talent acquisition. The tech sector creates more than a million entry-level jobs each year but fills only a fraction of them. US employers engaged in knowledge work hire workers based on previously acquired skills. Employers will simply not hire applicants who do not check all the boxes.

Unfortunately, the community college has not positioned itself to prepare students for knowledge work. Under the assumption that any job is better than no job, misguided administrators have adopted a strategy of creating minimally trained workers. The idea is to place them into entry-level jobs as quickly as possible. That approach might work if workers were also trained to recognize and self-acquire additional skills. But the minimalist approach to training leaves workers with only scant skills to perform basic work. They lack the ability to recognize and fill the gaps in their skill set. Instead of lifting people out of poverty, this approach commits them to decades of low-wage work.

Knowledge work – STEM occupations, including computer science, education, healthcare, sciences, business, finance, engineering, and similar fields – can help boost Michigan’s economy by providing the high wage jobs that put (or keep) people in the middle class.

Nationally, knowledge work accounts for one-third of the weekly US payroll. Two decades ago, these same occupations accounted for 28% of the nation’s payroll. There is demonstrated growth in knowledge work. On the other hand, production/manufacturing jobs have decreased from 10% of the national payroll in 2000 to 6% today. Further, the average salary for a production-based job is 25% lower than the average salary for a knowledge-based job.

Community college must support knowledge work

For as long as anyone can remember, Michigan’s economy has depended heavily on manufacturing and labor. But these sectors have been in sharp decline over the past three decades. They are still particularly important here, but they are clearly not the solution for growing and/or rebuilding Michigan’s economy.

Today, Michigan’s knowledge-based economy is slightly smaller than the national average. Economic recovery here is possible only by incorporating a higher proportion of knowledge work. While about two-thirds of knowledge based jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more, there is a chance to create skilled knowledge economy workers with two-year degrees.

But knowledge work – those high wage positions the economy needs – requires more focused education, not less. Certificates have a place – but only to augment existing academic credentials – not substitute for them. And students need to develop skills that make them agile in the workplace. They need to know how to acquire new skills independently. Returning to school repeatedly is simply not realistic.

Our community college administration has not adopted this strategy. Instead, it has positioned itself to crank out short-term certificates by the thousands. In doing so, it guarantees that Washtenaw County residents remain tethered to the low-wage jobs in Michigan’s manufacturing past.

Photo Credit: Ryan Keene, via Flickr