Nick Manes| Crain’s Detroit Business

Talent was the topic on the minds of the state’s business and political leaders in last week’s second annual 2014 Governor’s Economic Summit in Grand Rapids.

Whether talking about talent development – starting as early as the elementary school years – or retention, attendees at the summit were clear: Bridging the talent gap is the most crucial issue facing Michigan business in the long term. Particularly with the state projecting that it will need to fill about 280,000 jobs in the growing fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by 2018.

“Talent is our most important element for success as a business and as a region,” said Fred Keller, founder and CEO of Cascade Engineering, Inc., a Grand Rapids-based plastics manufacturer. Keller is also the chair of Talent 2025, a West Michigan coalition of business leaders aimed at developing talent from early childhood. “(Talent 2025’s) understanding of the system quickly helped us understand that the formal education part of the system…when compared to the needs of the employers wasn’t working as well as we needed it to.”

While organizations such as Talent 2025 are non-governmental, the state has no shortage of its own programs aimed at addressing the need for talent development and retention. Michael Finney, president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. spoke of a number of initiatives that came from the governor’s inaugural summit in 2013, held in Detroit.

Finney pointed to the Michigan Advanced Technician Training program – commonly called “MAT Squared” – as one service that came out of the previous year’s summit. The initiative aims to train high school seniors and recent graduates in advanced manufacturing and technology, allowing them to earn an Associate’s Degree at no cost while working in their chosen field.

In an interview, Finney said that MAT Squared is one program the MEDC is looking to expand upon over the next year or two.

Programs such as MAT Squared and Community Ventures – a public-private partnership aimed at providing jobs and training in the struggling cities of Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Pontiac – were heavily discussed at the Grand Rapids summit. However, Finney was hesitant to say what new initiatives would come out of this year’s agenda.

“I know we are receptive to both (new initiatives or tweaks to existing programs),” Finney said. “The governor thinks very strongly that we should listen to our customers. That’s every citizen and every business. So if in fact there are suggestions that warrant changes in policy, I’m sure the governor would consider it.”

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