Fletcher: Skill set for manufacturing growth

Back in the middle of the last century I graduated from a school that had the motto: “Pro vita non pro schola discimus.” Remembering my Latin of 50 years ago, it roughly translates “we learn for life, not for school.”

It was a good motto because we didn’t have grade inflation then. Come report card time we could justify the results by saying we were learning life skills rather than being grade hounds.

Last week I was talking with some industrialists who asked a good question: If Thunder Bay County (Alcona, Alpena, Montmorency, Oscoda, and Presque Isle) starts to recover from the recession, do we have enough trained folks in the area to allow us to hire the skills our local industries need?

It’s a fair question. A potential business developer last year who was looking for industrial property in Alpena Township told me he believed the region’s “window of opportunity” for new industry here was about five years. After that he believed those with appropriate skill sets would either have retired or left the area.

He said fewer students were enrolled in high school technical classes. I wasn’t so concerned by that fact, especially since most schools were still teaching kids skills for jobs that no longer existed. Actually, I was OK to see the K-12 system tone down a course of study for which there were no jobs at the end of that training.

His point though was this – we don’t have, say, as many metal workers in the area now as we did four years ago because many of them have moved their families out of the community to seek employment elsewhere, and residents left behind have never been properly trained.

This is just supply and demand. The demand for metal workers diminished and the supply moved to a place where the demand was stronger.

If demand were to come back rapidly, there may not be a sufficient pool of experienced workers to fill the spots needed. Personally, I worry more about whether we can recover at all.

An employee who has worked for me for about 30 years said to me last week “How can the city buy more property when they aren’t going to do a brush and leaf collection more than twice a year?”

I think the answer is that we as a community still are chasing the very elusive grail of tourism and have badly neglected our bread and butter of industry. We have beautified the downtown but haven’t revitalized the central business district. We have become “Johnny One Note.” In Northeast Michigan we do need tourists, but first we must see to the needs of our seniors, our education must be first rate, our infrastructure should be top notch and we must have a diversified economy.

Look to the north. Tom Moran has been an economic fireball in Presque Isle County but the five counties of our area still have lost more than 5,000 jobs since the region’s heyday – 3,000 from Alpena County alone. Manufacturing employment is the most lucrative and in just Alpena County we have lost Fletcher Paper, Detroit Gasket and now Thunder Bay/ATI Foundry.

All the focus on tourism in the past is fine, but it has not paid major job dividends. Instead, we need projects more like Alpena County’s pursuit of drone-related businesses.

Now is the time for cities and townships to loosen zoning rules and regulations that would encourage new development. Why? Look around, the exodus of potential workers far exceeds the numbers of new business ventures. In my opinion, we have to restructure our zoning welcome mat to encourage more development in our area. When everyone is employed, then would be the time to tighten regulations again.

We have exported a lot of talent from northern Michigan. The question is, can we entice that talent to return?