Change Isn’t Easy, But Required

May 10, 2004
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With West Michigan’s manufacturing jobs slowly seeping south, the question becomes this: How will those jobs be replaced?

More specifically, what will replace those jobs?

A quick geography lesson shows that almost every first-class or world-class economy produces something. The exception may be Switzerland, which is very small and has carved its own niche in the financial services sector. Otherwise, it’s make something and be a leader or be relegated to second-class economic status.

The concern is that, relating that scenario to the local level, West Michigan’s ability to make something is diminishing.

Most economists point to the usual indicators as signs of not only recovery, but prosperity. Yet few businesses in the region are feeling prosperous these days. In fact, as manufacturers learn to do more with less, the prospect of bountiful jobs in the future appears dim.

George Erickcek of the Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo calls it a “zero-sum game,” while others refer to a jobless recovery.

Also, the employees losing their manufacturing jobs are ill suited to find work in other sectors at comparable pay rates. They just don’t have the skills, and cuts in work-force training programs statewide are pretty much ensuring that they will never develop those skills without a lot of personal time and effort.

So how can West Michigan meet this latest challenge?

Change.

Embrace the biomedical science and health-care related ventures that are making their way into the local economy. Statistics show those two sectors as being among the top five healthiest in the country right now. Grand Valley State University, Spectrum Health and The Right Place Inc., among others, are finding success in attracting such businesses to West Michigan.

Secondly, promote education among traditional and nontraditional students alike. If West Michigan is to be home to these types of jobs, the work force must be prepared to fill them. GVSU and Grand Rapids Community College are two examples of institutions that have changed to meet the perceived demand of biotech jobs by offering courses and majors in those fields.

Also, brainpower may be used to replace some of those manufacturing jobs, at least at a higher level. While the parts may now be made in Mexico or China, they should be designed, tested and implemented here.

One example of opportunity knocking in West Michigan is Michigan State University’s discussion regarding placement of a full-blown medical school in Grand Rapids. With both MSU and Spectrum Health officials engaged in earnest negotiations, West Michigan has a unique opportunity to change itself.

But if that deal is to be completed, another change needs to take place. The cost of moving and/or relocating a medical school here has been pegged at more than $300 million. There is talk of “West Michigan philanthropists” who are willing to fuel the change, but so far those people have operated largely behind the scenes.

Michigan State is a public university with a board of trustees that is elected by the general populace. The negotiations have reached a point where the public is entitled to know what’s happening. Keeping secrets until a deal is done is the old way of doing things.

If West Michigan’s economy is to change, its private leadership should be willing to do the same.    

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