Krawczak: Big paybacks with increased education

Did you know that there are good jobs available in the Northeast Michigan region that employers are having a hard time finding talent to fill? Especially high-tech manufacturing jobs like mechanical engineering or computer-aided design. There is a clear gap between jobs and available or prospective employees with the skills to fill the jobs.

Today’s economy is not the same as yesterday’s economy, which is not the same as the economy of 20 years ago. New jobs of today require a workforce with different skills than the jobs of 10 or more years ago. The truth about the current unemployment rate is that it wouldn’t be as high if we didn’t have a workforce issue. This issue is not unique to Northeast Michigan, or even just Michigan. But it is a serious issue for economic development in this region. It is an issue we all need to be concerned about and willing to address if we want a vibrant community that is growing and sustainable.

According to the Lumina Foundation, 60 to 65 percent of jobs in the United States will require some form of postsecondary education or high-level training within the next 10 years. Currently, Michigan is on track to be at 43 percent postsecondary educational attainment in 10 years, and for Northeast Michigan, that projected percentage is even less. That’s a big gap that puts this region at an extreme disadvantage.

From data shared by the Michigan College Access Network, there are major disparities in college enrollment and completion levels when analyzed by income level. Eighty percent of the 24-year-olds in the highest income quartile hold a four year college degree. But only 10 percent in the lowest income quartile have a four year degree. During this past recession, four out of five jobs that were lost were held by Americans with high a school diploma or less. Americans with four-year degrees actually gained jobs during the recession and have seen an increase of two million jobs since 2010. Additional 2011 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrates a relationship between higher educational attainment levels and lower unemployment rates, as well as higher average wages. For example, in 2011, average wages for those with a bachelor’s degree was $55,000, with an average unemployment rate of 4.9 percent. During the same time, average wages for those with no more than a high school diploma had average wages of $33,000, and an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent.

According to, there are numerous positive trends in communities with increased postsecondary educational attainment levels (including technical certificate programs). Benefits include higher levels of civic engagement, increased voter participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, and less dependence on public assistance.

According to the most current data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 25.3 percent of Michigan residents ages 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. The national average is around 38 percent. Recent data for Alpena County shows that number at just 15.4 percent. In a poll conducted by the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, 72 percent of Michigan adults think that in order for a person to find success in the labor market it is very important for them to have a postsecondary education. In northern Michigan, only 60 percent indicated they feel that way.

What does this mean to us? If we want to be competitive in economic development we have to get serious about increasing our post-secondary education attainment levels. I could continue to throw statistics at you but the reality is the statistics all point in the same direction. Areas with higher educational attainment levels have lower unemployment and higher wages. This region is traditionally behind the average in attainment levels.

So what do we do? We can concentrate on increasing education levels for those already out of high school, or we can focus on increasing educational attainment of future cohorts of graduates. We should probably engage in both. Currently there are efforts under way to address this issue but it will take much more than an initiative led by a small committee.

It takes a shift in the way of thinking of an entire community. This is the direction of the national economy. Jobs that used to require little more than a high school diploma now require advanced training because of advancements in technology. We can’t fight that but we can get ahead of it by encouraging our youth to pursue, and complete, education and training after high school. Do you know any youth you can encourage and mentor through their journey after high school? I know a few who I am willing to mentor. I hope you choose to do the same.

Jackie Krawczak is the executive director of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. Her column runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays.