5 Ways Gov. Rick Snyder wants Michigan to change its thinking about education

By: Paula Gardner
Grand Valley State University's Allendale campus on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. (Cory Morse | MLive.com)
Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. (Cory Morse | MLive.com)(Cory Morse)

Michigan’s shortage of employees to fill thousands of open, high-paying jobs “is the single greatest threat to the state’s continued economic recovery,” according to officials in Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.

Solving that, Snyder says, now is among his top goals as he winds down his 8th year in leading the state.

He’s now urging officials across education and employment systems to consider how his new Marshall Plan will offer a blueprint for coordinating and expanding existing programs through 2024.

“We need to reinvent our talent system,” Snyder said in an interview with MLive.com. “… The challenge is that large.”

Snyder established Michigan’s Talent Investment Agency in 2015, when it took on the role of workforce development across the spectrum in the state – including identifying unfilled jobs and what skills workers need as high-paying careers increasingly require more than a high school diploma.

He later announced the Going Pro in Michigan plan to raise awareness of skilled trades options in the state.

Three years later, the Marshall Plan is elevating the concepts behind those plans and education programs from kindergarten through higher education. Schooling and career planning, combined, should be considered investments in talent development for Michigan residents, Snyder said.

Gov. Rick Snyder has a plan to get 800,000 Michiganders $60k jobs

The plan also pulls in business and the state to recognize intellectual and practical gaps.

“It’s not just about our educational systems,” Snyder said. “It’s about the role our employers can play and what role government can play.”

He’s been talking about the plan for months, and unveiled details in February.

Now, he said, he’s encouraging stakeholders to recognize how it could lead to Michigan leading the nation in talent development – which, on the ground, means more opportunities and higher wages for residents.

“This is revolutionary change,” Snyder said.

Here are five things to consider about the plan:

1. It’s not about the grade. Competence matters.

Have you ever talked to someone who got an A in a class, but couldn’t explain some key points of the material a week or more later?

That’s the difference between working for a letter grade and reaching competence in material.

And that’s one key change that Snyder would like to see among Michigan students of any age: Mastery of understanding, not a grade.

“We need to get to the point where people are really gaining competencies, in areas from traditional academics to soft skills,” he said.

One way to do that is to consider the Montessori method, where teachers become coaches and learning takes place in many ways – including students learning from each other or in third-party scenarios, like an internship or activity like FIRST Robotics.

Does Snyder, given the funding issues in Michigan education over several years, think that K-12 teachers in Michigan feel encouraged to be a coach?

“Funding isn’t how you start,” he said. “Funding is what you look at based on what you’re trying to achieve. I don’t see funding as the basic constraint right now.”

2. It’s time to bust a few myths for our kids.

The goal of career education is fairly simple. “We need to see how we can get them engaged in what they love doing,” Snyder said of today’s K-12 and college students.

That’s the best way for them to feel successful. But reaching that level doesn’t make it permanent. The days of going to school for four years and getting into a lifelong career are dwindling. And the days of finding a good-paying career with no education, Snyder said, are gone.

Some of the intimidation of finding a career should disappear with more exposure to options. Internships, hearing people in business settings speak about their openings and recognizing a student’s talent and interest will help.

And making a decision today won’t necessarily last forever, based on forecasts: Today’s college students may end up retrained twice during their career.

“When you make a decision, it’s doesn’t mean you’ll do that for the rest of your life,” Snyder said.

The process of elimination may be practical. Someone with hand tremors won’t want to pursue surgery.

It may be situational, like by visiting a factory or other professional setting.

The answer, Snyder said, is “you may learn what you don’t want to do.”

At the same time, parents may want to beef up on how they talk about careers. No one talks about wanting to learn C++ programming, Snyder said, and mentioning “you might want to try software” could result in a blank stare as a result.

Instead, it’s time to talk about what can be exciting in a job. “Software developer” could become using C++ and “creating a program for business, art or gaming.” And the entire realm of advanced manufacturing now involves problem-solving skills that students could find fulfilling.

3. Businesses need to consider their role in education.

Michigan’s talent pipeline is leaving many employers short of the staffing they need to do jobs from fast food through the most complex technologies. Yet, in Snyder’s vision, it’s not just the role of schools and universities to deliver work-ready people to the marketplace.

Instead, he’s looking for more employers to invest in building opportunities for students.

One example: The Cisco Networking Academy that the tech giant announced in Detroit last fall. It is part of how the company is creating a “digital acceleration” plan here, investing increasing IT skills for thousands of students.

With his new plan, he said, “It’s how do we get people to partner together?”

That means an early adopter won’t be a single K-12 school district. It would be that district paired with a community college, university and employer.

Vibrant examples in Michigan today are the Early Middle Colleges, where students take a fifth year of high school though a community college and earn an associate’s degree at no cost. Michigan offers 135 programs now, up 69 percent since 2013.

4. Four-year degrees are important to Michigan – but there’s more.

Data shows that the most likely path to the middle class is completion of a four-year college degree.

Snyder said he encourages that, but wants the mindset around them to change – including opening the recognition that social mobility for many Michiganders will come from starting with an educational goal that could involve a certificate or two-year degree.

That’s a different message than universities may be used to hearing, he recognizes.

“(Higher ed) is all about degrees, and primarily all about market share among 18- to 22- year-olds,” he said. And he recognizes that some colleges won’t likely warm to the change immediately.

He hopes they’ll take a longer view.

“I’m encouraging them to embrace this change to help them be even better in the future,” he said.

Under Snyder’s vision, that mindset will be broadened to include lifelong learning – along with competency. A certificate program could pair with a four-year degree, and the student aiming for an associate’s degree could find inspiration to seek still more schooling. And a worker with a bachelor’s degree should be able to “upskill” over a lifetime.

Meanwhile, some of the state’s higher ed institutions may today be saying state funding is a concern, but Snyder said their goal needs to be to prepare students for an eventual career.

At the same time, enrollment declines continue, with about 61 percent of high schoolers heading to college after graduation. In raw numbers, about 5,000 fewer went to college in 2016 than in 2013 – and graduation rates range from 32 percent to 90 percent.

“You shouldn’t be striving to be what you used to be,” Snyder advises Michigan’s universities. “You should be striving to be what you need to be for the future.”

He continued: “The world’s going to change a lot more. I encourage them to embrace this change, too.”

5. This education refocusing will better position Michigan to retain and grow jobs.

“We have unfilled job openings,” Snyder said is one key reason why bringing more partnerships and competency-based learning into Michigan schools should make a difference to the state.

The ultimate goal is to build opportunity for high-paying jobs, which with increased technology and automation also means higher-skilled jobs.

Considering whether Amazon could have chosen Michigan for its second headquarters brings up points that the state needs to consider now: “The mismatch of supply and demand.”

Current software development jobs are going unfilled, for example, so gaining a major employer in the field could just shift employees around.

Better for Michigan, Snyder said, would be increasing the pool of people who could fill the jobs – to the point where a new employer would want to tap into it and move here.

“Our role,” Snyder said, “is how do we solve (this) for who we have and who we could have.”

That field is just one example, but others exist across skilled trades and tech fields like cybersecurity.

The Marshall Plan report indicates more than 811,000 jobs paying at least $60,000 per year will be open in Michigan through 2024. While some express skepticism about that, Snyder said that may be low.

“I think there’s a lack of data coming for what full demand will be from the private sector,” he said.

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