Rick Haglund: Steering students into skilled trades alone won’t rebuild Michigan’s middle class

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For decades, Michigan policymakers have focused on attracting more high school students into skilled trades and other plentiful good-paying jobs that don’t require four-year degrees. 

Every governor since John Engler has pushed the notion that Michigan can rebuild a middle class decimated from the loss of auto assembly and other manufacturing jobs by growing “middle-skill” jobs that typically require an associate degree or a certification.

The evidence that this plan has worked is harder to find than a self-driving car in Escanaba. Michigan needs a much broader economic strategy that includes boosting education attainment, strengthening the safety net and attacking economic inequality.

At a time of record auto sales and booming job growth, Michigan ranks 34th in median household income, and below the national average. The state’s annual median household income of $54,909 in 2017 was $2,952 less than in 2005, adjusted for inflation.

Whitmer wants to close ‘skills gap,’ but some experts call it ‘a lie’

The Michigan Association of United Ways ALICE report found in that 43% of Michigan households in 2017 could not afford the basics of  housing, child care, food, health care, technology and transportation. That figure has risen slightly since 2010.

Sixty-one percent of all jobs in the state pay less than $20 an hour, while a family of four needs an income of $30.64 an hour just to make ends meet, according to the ALICE study.

I’m not suggesting that the state abandon efforts to inform students that there are good-paying jobs available to them that don’t require a four-year degree. 

Low-wage working households on the rise in Michigan

Those jobs are plentiful and Michigan needs more young people to fill them. There will be an estimated 47,000 annual job openings in skilled trades through 2026, according to the state’s Going Pro in Michigan initiative. Those jobs have an annual median wage of $54,000.

It’s appropriate for state officials to get that word out to young people who want good jobs that don’t require a university degree. 

But it’s troubling to see policymakers try to steer students away from four-year universities by telling them they’ll be better off in skilled trades jobs and not piling up student loan debt.

Yes, college is expensive, and the explosion of student debt is a major economic and societal challenge. But four-year college graduates earn more and are less likely to be unemployed. They’re also generally more satisfied with their careers than those with less education.

Even Michigan officials acknowledge that those seeking the most in-demand, high-paying jobs in the state over the next seven years will need a university sheepskin.

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The state’s “Hot 50” jobs, newly updated to 2026, shows that 36 of them require at least a bachelor’s degree. They are primarily in technology, management, health care, and professional and business services.

And a new study found that cities with higher concentration of workers with cognitive skills, associated with knowledge work, and with people skills, such as management, perform better economically and are better able to cope with downturns than those with high levels of motor skills typically found in manufacturing jobs.

Detroit | Creative Commons

It’s probably no surprise then that Detroit, which ranks high in the concentration of workers with motor skills, was among the hardest hit major cities economically during the Great Recession, according to the study.

After a decade of booming auto sales, we could be on the cusp of another significant downturn, exacerbated by the billions of dollars automakers are investing in self-driving cars that could still be many years away.

Improving K-12 education, and boosting skills and degree holders, while critically important, won’t create a broad middle class, argues Seattle entrepreneur and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer.

Writing recently in the Atlantic, Hanauer said the growth of the middle class is being stymied by too many low-wage jobs and income gains disproportionately going to the richest Americans.

“American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies  have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me,” he said. 

Rick Haglund: Below the surface, Michigan’s economy has serious flaws

Hanauer has called for boosting the minimum wage, making more workers eligible for overtime pay, strengthening organized labor and raising taxes “on rich people like me and our estates.”

Making housing, child care and health care more affordable can put people on a path to increased economic security, he said.

Others have called for a stronger social safety net that provides food, housing, income and other assistance to those struggling to climb the economic ladder.

Restoring the middle class will be a lot more complicated than just attracting more young people into the skilled trades.

Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund is a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.

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