Shawn Wright| Crain’s Talent Report

New ideas and companies with growth in mind are two keys to creating new jobs.

Holding a front-row seat to those innovations is Michael Finney, president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

As the leader of the MEDC and right-hand man for Gov. Rick Snyder’s economic growth group, Finney sees what industries are growing through innovation. He also sees how employers can develop and retrain an emerging workforce, and what can be expected in the next year or two in terms of innovation-related jobs and development.

Finney sat down with Shawn Wright, of Crain’s Custom Media, to offer some perspectives on innovation and job growth.

What innovations are driving job growth in Michigan? What can we expect to see?

Areas like engineering, IT and software, technician areas such as CNC machining and tool and die makers, are all telling us in our database that we need to have programs designed to support filling those positions.

For example, at the (North American International) Auto Show’s opening week, Governor Rick Snyder and I met with the Detroit Auto Dealers Association. They identified a need for a lot more technically skilled mechanics. To our surprise, these are very high-paying jobs that most of us don’t understand. There’s a real skills gap for young people to start coming into the mechanics trade.

They (the Detroit Auto Dealers Association) would like for us to do a Michigan Advanced Technician (MAT2) program centered around developing mechanics to support their dealerships. It’s those kinds of programs that we’ve been able to build out. It’s all looking at employer demand and then trying to focus our resources to fill those requirements.

Everything we’re doing is being driven by employer demand. In other words, we are very carefully watching where the skills gaps are based upon employers that we’re touching. We implemented our job portal,, about two years ago, and it’s become a fairly robust resource for job seekers and companies as they look to recruit talent.

And because we have tens of thousands of job seekers and tens of thousands of jobs in our database, we’re able to do a lot of analysis to show where the demand is coming from for skills versus the skills available. We’re designing our programs around these employer demands.

In what industries are we seeing growth? Going forward, what could we expect to see?

Manufacturing is big, and it’s big beyond automotive. Right now, we’re seeing demand for a little bit of everything. It’s medical devices with major companies such as Terumo Cardiovascular Systems. Over in Kalamazoo, we have Stryker Corp. If you looked at our space in medical devices, there are a lot there. It’s all about manufactured products.

We have food industries and agriculture, but the big industry in our state is the potential for processed foods; it’s pretty phenomenal. We’re now looking for opportunities in the processed foods space, which is again manufacturing. The furniture industry is doing well. We’ve had some major activity in the furniture space.

There are a number of different industries that are doing well. But a lot of it is being catalyzed by what’s happening within automotive. The supply base centered around automotive that’s heavily concentrated in Michigan is driving a lot of the success we’re seeing right now.

How does Michigan compare with other states in the country, when it comes to innovation?

I think we’re doing great. One of the metrics around that is how much patent activity we have. Michigan ranks either third or fourth in patents that are being issued. A lot of those innovations coming to universities convert into business opportunities for faculty, staff and students.

We feel very confident that Michigan’s innovation pipeline is a strong one. But, obviously, we still have a lot of work to do to convert those innovations into businesses that thrive here in Michigan.

What do you feel the state’s workforce development agencies and employers should know about innovation in Michigan?

With respect to workforce development, we spend a lot of money in this state. I do think it’s important for us to continue to look for ways that innovate around it. There are some limitations because most of the money is federal dollars. We have to be careful, with respect to how we spend that.

We want to try and continue to innovate based on the demands that are coming from employers. The number one item is to keep in tune with the employer base. We need to stay closely connected with the local economic developers in the communities around the state, as well as the MEDC. It’s important that our Michigan Works agencies are aligning their resources to be supportive of that.

What advice would you give to employers who need to stay ahead of their workforce needs?

I would encourage employers to have near-term needs, or look at their workforce to see if they’re getting at a point to retiring folks, and start to connect with their local Michigan Works agencies or the MEDC to start sharing what they’re anticipating as their demand. We can then start working with them in a customized way to back-fill any talent gaps that may be on the horizon.

We’ve also got to do things in the high schools, in particular, to get students, parents and counselors interested in what I’ll call vocational and trades types of occupations. Those have largely disappeared from our K through 12 system, through no fault of anyone. But it’s important because these are now very high-paying occupations and with great career opportunities. What we want to do is encourage career preparedness, as opposed to just focusing on having everyone move on to earn a four-year degree without having any career direction around what their interests are or the opportunities available.

Is there a common thread that you’re seeing in sectors that are growing around the state?

The thing we like that we’re seeing is that employers are willing to make significant investment in developing their workforce. And that wasn’t always the case. To a great extent, employers were expecting individuals to come prepared, they’d recruit from other places, or that the state and other governmental entities would pay to get folks ready.

What we’re seeing now is a real desire on the part of employers to start actively support and sponsor individuals they they’re trying to bring into their workforce. We would encourage more of that because it really creates a level of commitment that’s difficult to get if you have not already brought people on through internships, co-ops, or something like that.

What will we see in the next year or two, in terms of innovation-related jobs and development?

You should expect to see a double-down on our efforts to get our community colleges to graduate more students who are prepared to meet the demands of our employers. For example, all these technician-type roles I’m describing we’re going to probably to do some things to double-down on that.

Secondly, expect to see our universities graduate more engineers, computer science, software and IT professionals, and to work really hard to make those individuals available to the businesses here in our state. We think we’re on the right path, but we’ll probably be continuing to innovate around our community college and university pipelines of talent.

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