Roger Jankowski| Crain’s Custom Media

In what amounts to a clarion call to colleges and universities, as well as state policy makers, key workforce experts are pointing to a serious gap in career readiness among students and job seekers that could have overwhelming consequences for the region’s residents, employers and economy.

Citing factors such as a lack of career-ready applicants — and extensive, pending retirements among baby boomers — experts are pointing to a perfect storm of circumstances that could leave employers scrambling to fill jobs, and eventually looking elsewhere.

A briefing prepared by the Workforce Intelligence Network finds that Southeast Michigan’s economy continues to show clear signs of recovery — with unemployment rates falling over 10 points in the last five years — but the region’s pool of career-ready applicants is not keeping up.

Case in point:  Online job postings between January 2013 and May 2014 in Michigan showed a need for nearly 47,000 engineering and design workers with bachelor’s degrees.  However, only 5,000 degrees were awarded in the state in these areas of study in the 2013-14 academic year.

Similar trends are present in the other industries tracked, with IT postings for bachelor’s degrees exceeding 72,000 and only 1,800 graduates attaining this degree. In health care, almost 31,000 postings indicated a requirement for a graduate degree, while the number of degrees awarded at this level was below 5,000.

According to John Bebow, president and CEO of The Center for Michigan, this all points to the clear lack of a road map for students from schools and colleges to the career world.

“Long gone are the days when you can simply get a degree,” says Bebow.  Schools and colleges need to do a better job of preparing students for the employment landscape.  More and more students are going deeper and deeper into debt to get a bachelor’s degree, only to find that there are no jobs waiting for them in their field.

“That’s not good customer service,” says Bebow.

Contributing to the problem are current policies and strategies — particularly at the high school level — which emphasize educational attainment but not preparation for the workforce.

According to a report co-authored by Lisa Katz, executive director of WIN, students coming out of high school must meet state and federal requirements for education, leaving little time for career awareness and preparation.  Critical pathways like career and technical education are often perceived as “alternative track” and not for the college-bound.  In addition, the student-to-counselor ratio in the region is an overwhelming 600 students to every one counselor. Counselors have to prioritize test administration mental health and well-being before career counseling, leaving most students sorely lacking advice that would help steer them toward in-demand careers.

Yet, there are bright spots: Bebow cites Grand Valley State University for its successful efforts to track and report the percentage of students who get degrees and then jobs in their fields.  He also points to private schools like Davenport University whose focus is on a direct path between education and career readiness.

Southeast Michigan is at a pivotal point in economic and workforce development. As the economy improves, retirement rates are expected to rise, leaving employers struggling to find experienced, competent workers. The continued misalignment of training programs to the actual needs of employers may lead to a long-term talent pipeline issue.

Companies may be less likely to fill job openings with individuals who are ready to work, leading to increased needs and costs for on-the-job training and less likelihood that employers will be able to appropriately fill their middle- and high-skilled openings. In turn, this may lead to less successful companies and frustrated employers, which could result in a mass exodus of business from the region.

Workforce experts believe, however, that if we invest in career awareness for our middle school, high school and young college students now, Michigan may retain many of the young people and future workers that are projected to leave the state.

Current projections indicate that the state could lose nearly 250,000 residents by 2023. We have the potential to retain at least 75,000 additional workers by helping students get into high-wage, lucrative careers within the next decade.  Retaining these workers could increase Michigan worker income by $4 billion during that time period.

However, warns Katz, “failing to act could prove devastating” to Michigan’s economy.

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