Monday, August 27, 2007

Lumberjacks, Autoworkers and Turbo-charged Minds

There was a time when Michigan was teeming with lumberjacks. More recently Michigan was teeming with auto workers. The lumber era spanned 1860-1910. Michigan’s auto era seems to have spanned 1901 to 1995, when 72.6% of the cars sold in the U.S. were made by the Detroit Three. (source) Ninety five years was a pretty good run.

The lumber era made fortunes, created communities and our early infrastructure; but the auto era created our culture. And that is why this transition to our next economy is so hard.

Michigan’s auto era created a middle class of white collar and blue collar workers. It created an expectation that your physical labor could be exchanged for a comfortable quality of life (a small tract house, maybe a cottage and a fishing boat). It also employed a large cohort of knowledge workers–accountants, engineers, designers, managers. Domestic labor designed and produced domestic goods for domestic consumers. A blue collar or white collar worker was, by design, also a consumer. The economy seemed to function of, by, and for, we the people.

But historic innovations in telecommunications and computing power changed that. Ideas, knowledge and funds became digitized--able to move around the globe around the clock. Our data were no longer constrained by space and time. A global economy in real time was possible (for example, call centers in India deliver customer service to credit card holders in the U.S. during our business hours). Corporations integrated information technology advances with global petroleum-based transportation. And that is how we got into this fine mess.

There is growing consensus that Michigan must move forward into the New Economy, which is knowledge-based and not particularly new. To get there from here everyone--from line workers to lawyers, plumbers to politicians--will have to make a paradigm shift.

If you want to stay in Michigan, you will have to think differently about everything. Don’t expect heavy manufacturing to fund your local charities, the state budget or your retirement. Do not mistake car culture nostalgia for a viable way forward. Pursue continuing education as if your life depends on it, because it does. Understand yourself as a stakeholder in a whole new way. Make demands of your legislators to facilitate structural changes supportive of knowledge-based enterprises. Start with education.

The resource for the 21st century is brains. Education is the foundation of a knowledge-based culture and economy. And perhaps we need to think about culture first. Michigan is succeeding at attracting well-educated workers from elsewhere. But to retain them--people who value educational excellence--we will have to fund education more vigorously. We must create a culture of lifelong learning.

We need to produce turbo-charged minds from kindergarten through Ph.D. V-8 minds are good for the environment, the culture and the economy. Lumber built our towns; cars drove our culture. Well-educated minds will create our future.