State Fighting Old Tech Stigma

January 6, 2003
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LANSING — A recent study commissioned by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) had the state ranked fourth in the nation for total employment in high-tech industries.

The study, conducted by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) at the Altarium Institute, found that there were over 568,000 high-tech workers employed in Michigan — or about 38,000 more since the first study of this kind was made public two years ago.

CAR said Michigan only trailed California, Texas and New York in high-tech employment.

“This study proves that our state’s work force is one of the most technologically advanced in the nation,” said Doug Rothwell, former MEDC CEO and president.

“With many new high-tech initiatives recently put into motion, the number of high-tech workers in Michigan is expected to grow.”

Yes, projections show that more high-tech workers will be needed in the future to keep the state competitive in the field.

But whether those jobs can be filled with state residents for the long haul isn’t a certainty, at least according to a report issued last May. And the key to accomplishing that mission may rest on whether the state can change a negative image.

Of the 10 fastest-growing occupations identified by the Michigan Department of Career Development (MDCD), six fell into the information-technology sector.

Computer engineers, systems analysts, computer-support specialists, computer scientists, desktop publishing specialists, and database administrators were forecast to be the fastest growing of the 10 identified.

The MDCD reported growth in these areas would range from a 58 percent increase for database administrators to a 102 percent rise for computer engineers over a 10-year period. The MEDC said the short term is pretty much covered with a large-enough and trained-enough work force.

But the long-term — say, 20 to 30 years from now — is another matter.

Improving Michigan’s Competitive Advantage was released last May and the report said that a shortage of skilled workers “poses a significant long-term” threat to the state’s ability to compete in the high-tech field. Low birthrates in Michigan coupled with a lack of skilled workers coming here from other states would compound the problem, the report said.

More potential workers must be attracted or recruited into technical careers, the report said, and Michigan’s work force training system must respond more accurately and quickly to the needs of the business community in preparing individuals for these positions.

The good news is the state has been working on that effort — one that aims to keep native students from leaving while enticing those from other Midwestern states to come here.

The better news, for some at least, is that the skill level needed to fill many of the future high-tech vacancies “can be obtained through a series of short-term, concentrated training programs.”

This is a reference to those programs offered at a Michigan Technical Education Center (M-TEC), where the state and a local community offer technical, or vocational, instruction in various areas.

But vocational training carries a stigma with some.

The May report showed that more than half of state educators saw training programs as being negative, while 42 percent of parents and 41 percent of students held the same view. They believe that students are better served with the longer and more traditional form of education offered at the state’s colleges and universities.

The MEDC isn’t quarreling with that opinion, but is trying to change the perception that technical training is a form of second-class learning. The state plans to develop an aggressive marketing strategy aimed at parents and students to remove that stigma, something it hasn’t been able to do thus far.

“No, not yet,” said Jennifer Owens, MEDC assistant vice president of communications. “But it’s not something that is going to be fixed overnight.

“I think that a lot of college students think they have to get some sort of degree, and we’re really finding that there are a lot more careers — and many are better paying — in the vocational and technical field.

“We’re going to be working with the Department of Career Development and the Michigan Works! agency to come up with an action plan and start promoting vocational and technical education careers in Michigan,” added Owens.

Of course, the M-TEC Centers will be a vital part of that promotional effort. Seventeen of the 18 are open, including the one here run by the state and Grand Rapids Community College. The last center, set for Lansing, will open late this year, and the MEDC has high hopes that the idea of enrolling in one will be attractive to parents and students. So far, it has — for more than the agency expected it would.

Owens said M-TEC has exceeded its five-year goal. More than 33,800 trainees have gone through the various programs since 1997 — a number that is 6,700 over the goal. The centers have also served more than 1,000 employers over those years.

Including business in the process is part of the equation, too.

Companies have repeatedly said that there was a shortage of skilled workers in the state and a need to improve the image of careers that evolve from technical training.

Owens said the MEDC has been working closely with companies through its recruitment alliance, an effort that goes to out-of-state campuses and explains to students the high-tech opportunities Michigan has. About 50 Michigan businesses are now part of that alliance.

“What that means is that they post their job postings on our Michigan Career site, and they also agree to join us at, at least one career fair every year to do some real recruiting of these college students,” said Owens.

“This year we had GM join the recruitment alliance, as well as EDS. So some of the larger companies who can quite clearly do their own recruiting are now joining us in the effort.”

Being rated fourth nationally by the Center for Automotive Research for the number of high-tech workers is significant for more than the ranking.

It also reveals how dependent the state is on the automotive field. A similar technical employment assessment done by the American Electronic Association (AEA) rated Michigan as 17th in the country — not fourth.

But the AEA ranking didn’t count workers in the auto industry, which CAR said has 70,000 high-tech employees in the state.

“Michigan has one of the most innovative and technology-driven economies in the nation,” said Rothwell, shortly before he left the agency to join General Motors.

Now all the MEDC has to do is convince parents and students of that.

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