Skip the peanut butter and get to the meat

January 29, 2012
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Within a week’s time, the business community collectively has been pointedly a focus for state, national and local political initiatives in annual speeches by elected leaders. The State of the State, State of the Union, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell’s State of the City speeches — even the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce annual meeting theme — all were underscored by pointed “asks” of business leaders. Those business leaders — and the city, state and nation — are best served as business owners and leaders continue to mine company profits and lead innovation of new products and services.

The caveat lies in what business leaders have to work with. Michigan lost 850,000 jobs in a comparatively brief amount of time. University of Michigan economists report the state will not regain that labor force until sometime after 2030, regardless of Gov. Snyder’s ability to achieve new initiatives in dog years. Add to that the fact that Michigan — including the Grand Rapids region — ranks as low in education attainment percentages as (almost) anywhere in the country.

The governor last year and again this year has emphasized with state funding early education initiatives and collaborative work between agencies with those skills. Mayor Heartwell on Saturday emphasized a similar initiative in this region, but focused on K-12 education.

Those initiatives, if and as they find success, offer greater hope for that 2030 future date. The crisis remains in the chasm between 2012 and sometime around 2030. The GRACC’s continued focus on community diversity issues and the governor’s emphasis on the state’s open door to immigrants both are opportunities to bridge that chasm, though success may be too little, too late.

Business Leaders for Michigan president and CEO Doug Rothwell last week told the Business Journal that a six-hour session attended by 60 of the state’s top business leaders provided one new initiative to five that already were a part of its Michigan Turnaround Plan, and it focuses on new investment in higher education. This seems lofty given what funds the state already has prescribed for other initiatives, especially infrastructure.

Rothwell, however, believes that the improving economic climate and the success already achieved by Michigan’s Big Three automakers offer funds for such investment through job growth.

He told the Business Journal: “As that economy improves and revenue increases to the state, instead of what we’ve done in Michigan in the past, which is kind of peanut butter spread across all areas, we should focus on infrastructure and higher education.”

Emphasis on colleges and universities and the collective talent on those campuses is about the only shorter-term solution to recruitment of a skilled work force. As the economy continues to bounce toward recovery, it is the largest threat looming over the success of local businesses.

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