Help Educational Talent Fuel Work Force

March 26, 2004
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Economic news this past week certainly is the most optimistic of several years, from Herman Miller’s sales increases to an unchanged unemployment rate (perhaps a glass half full at this point in time). The business community has survived the Millennium Bug, 9-11, corporate liars and a nasty transition in the manufacturing sector. There is no doubt that business has come through it all stronger and smarter, positioned for advances. Its undoing remains in those who hold to past practices, and the weakness of our education system — especially as local businesses again become concerned about labor shortages.
Van Andel Institute Chairman and CEO David Van Andel last week noted the strength of the biotech and life sciences industries, and sounded the alarm for Michigan about the growing competition from other states to have a piece of the economic multipliers inherent in those industries. The VAI has identified 40 other states with new initiatives aimed at attracting and retaining the industry. While even former Gov. John Engler’s support of the industry was half that of the state of Illinois, the recent back-to-back cuts in the state budget for the Life Sciences Corridor further weakens Michigan’s most promising industry and is a sure threat as competition increases. In four years, Van Andel noted, 74 new life sciences ventures have been established in Michigan. From 1998 to 2001, the state’s overall employment grew by 2.3 percent, while employment in the life sciences sector jumped by more than 12.5 percent.

Tie this to the remarks last week of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan at a financial conference at Boston College. An Associated Press story in the Detroit Free Press (not carried in local papers) quoted Greenspan’s report that while wages for high-skill workers have risen, real wages for low-skill workers have been stagnant — for 20 years. He said that suggests that the country is producing a shortage of high-skill workers and a surplus of low-skill workers.

Greenspan was quoted as saying, “Some have a gnawing sense that our problems may be more than temporary and that the roots of the problem may extend back through our education system.” One of those hollering those very facts has been U.S. Sen. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, who has consistently in each term pushed for more math and science education funding. Were his fellows to listen, Ehlers could add a fact to the argument on a subject of growing interest: According to VAI’s study, the life sciences industry, which includes 22 major occupations, pays an average of $16,000 more a year than the U.S. mean annual wage.

Ehlers might quote Greenspan, whose most profound statement as reported emphasized, “Time and again throughout our history, we have discovered that attempting merely to preserve the comfortable features of the present, rather than reaching for new levels of prosperity, is a sure path to stagnation.” Would either of the presidential candidates listen to Greenspan (and we would bet on Bush) there might be a real turn of perception and understanding among voters. That either of them would allow blame for the current circumstance of change only spins the circle wider to be forever unending, even while business in America continues on the road to prosperity.

It will not happen easily, however, unless Ehlers is heard. At a time of pending labor shortages in this country, one worries that the educational talent of U.S. students will not match that of their counterparts from around the world. What work will then be left to a labor force of any size?           

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