Economic Development, Education, and Manufacturing

Whitmer administration says ‘Sixty by 30’ hangs in the balance

LEO director presses for funding Michigan Reconnect, Going PRO Talent Fund.

February 21, 2020
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Jeff Donofrio said Michigan Works! agencies and other state-funded programs have allocated marketing dollars toward raising awareness of the skills needed to get new and better jobs. Photo by iStock

A leader within Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration says he is “hopeful” a pair of adult education and workforce development programs will be funded this quarter by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Jeff Donofrio, director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) — which Whitmer created by executive order in June 2019, tapping Donofrio to lead the department following his four-year stint as Detroit’s executive director of workforce development — spoke to the Business Journal on Feb. 20 about his current work as head of LEO.

Donofrio on Feb. 14 joined Whitmer in a statement reaffirming the administration’s commitment to its “Sixty by 30” goal to increase the number of Michiganders with a postsecondary credential to 60 percent by 2030, a target Whitmer announced in her 2019 State of the State address.

Their comments followed the release of a new report by the Indiana-based Lumina Foundation that showed Michigan’s post-secondary attainment has grown from 45% to 45.5% in one year, which they said underscores the need for Michigan Reconnect to speed up the process.

Michigan Reconnect is a large-scale plan to provide tuition-free, post-secondary certificate or degree training to high school graduates and older adults that Whitmer introduced in her 2019 State of the State address as one tool that would help the state meet the “Sixty by 30” goal. Senators and House representatives on both sides of the aisle introduced a package of bills in the state legislature in April that would create the framework for the program.

The bills still were in committee as of press time.

“To build an economy that works for everyone, we need to ensure everyone has a path to a good-paying job,” Whitmer said in her Feb. 14 press release about the Lumina findings. “While this report shows Michigan is moving in the right direction toward our postsecondary goal, we must do more to help Michiganders get the skills they need to compete. That’s why it’s so important for the Michigan Legislature to pass the bipartisan Michigan Reconnect bills that will help provide tuition-free skills training and degree programs for adults.”

Donofrio said the state’s progress in education attainment and skills preparation is “not good enough,” as Michigan currently ranks 33rd nationally for education attainment.

He said other central U.S. states such as Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin hold a competitive edge in filling their talent pipelines, with higher rates of post-secondary degree attainment among residents.

Michigan Reconnect is modeled on a bipartisan, free college program spearheaded by Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee and the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature.

The free-college program is one of two main methods Donofrio said will bolster the state’s workforce development efforts; the second is the Going PRO Talent Fund, formerly known as the Skilled Trades Training Fund until it was rebranded in 2018. The program, which began in 2014, “makes awards to employers to assist in training, developing and retaining current and newly hired employees,” according to the LEO website.

The funds are disbursed through Michigan’s workforce development system, the Michigan Works! agencies.

Whitmer recommended $27.9 million in funding be allocated for the Going PRO Talent Fund in her fiscal year 2020 budget plan.

She also asked the Legislature to quickly authorize tuition-free community college or technical training for nontraditional students — those 25 and older without an associate or bachelor’s degree — under Michigan Reconnect. The Reconnect program would benefit an estimated 51,000 students starting this summer and cost $110 million over two years, according to previous Business Journal reports.

Whitmer’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal also is asking for $27.9 million for the Going PRO Talent Fund and another $35 million for the Michigan Reconnect program.

Donofrio said he is “hopeful” the Legislature will approve the Going PRO funding for FY 2020 through supplemental spending bills in time for disbursement of training grants in the first quarter of the year, as LEO already selected the companies that will receive funding out of the 1,100 applicants that met the Oct. 1 deadline.

A notice on the LEO website at bit.ly/LEOgoingpro reminds visitors to the page that the Going PRO funding is still in limbo for 2020.

If the Legislature fails to approve the funding in time for employers’ planned first-quarter training programs to begin, Donofrio said the state will have to “reassess” whether those applications and those training programs are still valid.

In addition to his optimism regarding Going PRO funding being approved in time, Donofrio said he believes funding for Michigan Reconnect will “move very quickly this year.”

“The best economic development tool you have is your people — your workforce. So Reconnect is really important because of that, (and) Going PRO is really important because of that,” he said, noting that last year Going PRO up-skilled about 22,000 workers and led to a $6,000 average pay increase per worker.

Donofrio said he feels an urgency to fund these programs based on his experience heading up workforce development in Detroit. At the beginning of his tenure with the city, Detroit ranked 50th out of 50 major U.S. cities for workforce participation, with only 47% of its adults employed following the state’s “lost decade.” After spending $30 million on career and technical education investments and adding 20,000 jobs over the course of four years, he said the city only moved up to 49th place, which points to how much more investment needs to happen.

A similar story can be told on the statewide level, he said, where in the past 20 years, Michigan’s average household income has fallen from on par with the U.S. average to the bottom third, or 34th place out of 50.

Donofrio said this was in part because Michigan has fewer “recession-proof” industries than other states — with only 43% of its industries growing during recessionary times — and partly because the state’s workforce for so long could expect to land living-wage jobs with only a high school diploma, and its post-secondary education infrastructure and funding has failed to keep up with the growing need for a highly skilled workforce over time.

The Whitmer administration is starting from the bottom up with increases to K-12 funding in the 2020 and 2021 budget plans so as to create a foundation from which to build upon with post-secondary education programs, Donofrio said.

Additionally, according to previous Business Journal reports, Michigan colleges and universities such as Grand Rapids Community College and Grand Valley State University have announced accelerated degree programs designed to help adults complete credentials in high-demand disciplines such as manufacturing, computer science, cybersecurity, health, education and culinary arts.

Donofrio said Michigan Works! agencies and other state-funded programs have allocated marketing dollars toward raising awareness of the skills needed to get new and better jobs and the resources available to make that happen, and it is money well spent.

“The biggest thing we’ve got to do is just help people understand there are multiple pathways to a postsecondary credential,” he said.

“It’s not just going to (a four-year) college; it’s going to community college, it’s going into apprenticeships, it’s going to certification trainings. You can make a really good living and have a good quality of life. The important thing is that you go and get some sort of after-high school education. … There’s an opportunity to change your life.”

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