Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lou Glazer of Michigan Future, Inc. on education and prosperity

Lou Glazer cares about Michigan’s economic future. The president of Michigan Future, Inc., he has spent more than a year presenting New Agenda for a New Michigan to more than one hundred organizations across the state. This week we talked about economic development, investing in talent, and how Michigan can successfully transition from the old manufacturing economy to the nascent knowledge economy.

“Nothing correlates higher than educational attainment with prosperity and high incomes," says Glazer. Yet, Michigan faces a cultural shift of historic proportion to seize that advantage. And current public policy priorities favor funding development of specific industry sectors over investment in higher education.

“For the last three quarters of the last century we had the broadest middle class in the country. And that was wonderful. That happened because 100 years ago we were the equivalent of Silicon Valley; we were inventing what was next,” says Glazer about Michigan’s manufacturing economy. “I believe that economy as a source of mass middle class jobs is over.”

That economy shaped attitudes about the necessity of higher education. As long as heavy manufacturing – the auto industry, in particular – thrived, a high school education could lead to a middle class income. An unfortunate legacy of that blue-collar middle-class culture is a college completion rate that still lags behind the national average.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2004, 24.6 percent of Michigan residents 25 and older have at least a four year college degree. That is below the national rate of 27 percent and below many other states including: Minnesota at 29.7 percent, New York at 30.5 percent and Illinois at 29.1 percent. Governor Granholm has set a goal of doubling the state’s college graduation rate in ten years. Doubling our rate would put Michigan ahead of the District of Columbia (47.7 percent).

Over the last decade, Michigan’s public investment in higher education has eroded. “The most disturbing thing about Michigan public policy over this decade – during Engler and Granholm administrations – is that the state spent a century building up one of the best higher education systems in the world and at the point it matters most, we start dis-investing in it,” says Glazer. “Every one else is investing in their higher education systems and we’re walking away from ours.”

“Preparing, attracting and retaining talent matters most,” says Glazer. He contends that vibrant urban central neighborhoods attract that talent. “When you see the places doing well – Seattle, Boston, New York , Chicago – they are places people want to live. Talent is increasingly moving to central cities.”

According to a 2006 survey of recent college graduates by CEOs for Cities, two thirds of college graduates decide where to live first and then look for work. “Place really matters to this generation. And a big part of Michigan’s problem is that we don’t have a place that is aligned with where young talent wants to live,” says Glazer. He does concede that Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo are making efforts to increase livability of central neighborhoods.

While he advocates public investment in talent, he is skeptical about the economic development approach taken by the 21st Century Jobs Fund. He says that picking the right set of industries and then enterprises within those industries is an inefficient way to foster development. “Every state has a life sciences initiative. Our position is that it’s like fool’s gold. Everybody has the sense that there are riches at the end of the rainbow. The odds that it is going to be your state are low. You have to be really lucky for it to happen in your community,” he says. In addition, those enterprises do not create vast numbers of jobs, certainly not numbers that will offset losses in manufacturing.

So what ought Michigan do? “The pattern we see around the country is that where central cities and higher education are a priority of business leaders they become public policy priorities,” he says. “In Michigan that is missing. The state Chamber of Commerce has basically adopted the Mackinac Center agenda, which is that all public investments are bad and low taxes are the answer.”

Glazer and Michigan Future, Inc. will continue to present their Agenda for the state hoping that the power of their ideas can move leaders to action. As for the general prognosis going forward, using the language of grief, Glazer says, “My sense is we’re somewhere between denial and acceptance.”