Nothing Is More Important

By on February 22nd, 2018

Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Nothing Is More Important

February 23, 2018 

Today, when both talent and knowledge matter, it seems America is on the losing end of the global race.

Those ‘Up North’ may well relate to the lack of investment in our roads as akin to the seasonal ‘freeze and thaw’ cycle – nearly as destructive as the political games our legislative leaders are playing with taxes. Republicans and Democrats? Crazier together:

If you’ve been fortunate as I have to travel China who have invested in their infrastructure, you can relate to the fact that America is comparatively far behind them in providing safe, affordable, reliable, and efficient public transportation. Everything from clean buses to high-speed trains.

Currently, China is also now investing heavily in 21st-century technology: AI, automation, science, and innovation.

We need to start investing NOW in our aging infrastructure: roads, bridges, rail, ports, sewers, broadband, locks, and other public projects that help nations propel boldly into the 21st century. As a state and a nation, we have been disinvesting for decades.

We also need to invest in the talent and knowledge development of our people. From trade school to graduate school we are falling far behind other developed nations.

Knowledge Rules

Where we have truly fallen as a state and a nation is in investing in our collective futures —the education of our youth and retraining workers who have been impacted by automation and globalization.

We have not invested in our public schools, community colleges or universities in a way that matches our rhetoric: “talent and knowledge will rule”, “our youth, our future”, and “Blue- collar Americans- the foundation of our nation”. All this remains bumper sticker happy talk unless we as a nation do more than “talk the talk”. Today, we need to elect leaders who can “walk the walk!”

I have expounded on this theme over the years, most recently about investing in people, in a column on these pages:  Social constructs are not easy to change- Amazon Calling: An Educational Wake-up

Michigan’s senior US Senator, Debbie Stabenow recently visited Randall Career Technical Center in Detroit to underscore the need to improve job readiness options across Michigan and the U.S. The senator realizes jobs will go unfilled in coming years if workers and students aren’t exposed to options for training and career tracks. She emphasized, “Getting the skilled workers that we need is how we move Michigan forward.”

Federal legislation had been introduced to change that. The new legislation includes Senate Bill 2442, which would put into place a federal system like the Michigan New Jobs Training Program. It provides for community colleges to train new business hires at no cost to the student or the employer in order to capture state income tax withholding until the cost is recouped.

Snyder Invests in Pre-K-12

Time for some belated credit to Governor Snyder who, in his final budget, provided a significant bump in per-pupil funding for our public schools, promising a “Marshall Plan” for workforce training “to be announced” even as he remains stingy when it comes to funding for community colleges and universities. Snyder has called for a hike in the per-pupil grant of more than $233.

But community colleges and higher education are not expected to see any increases, beyond inflation, if that.

What exactly is Michigan’s Future?

Michigan Future, Inc. is a non-partisan, non-profit organization whose mission is to be a source of new ideas about how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its goal is to be a catalyst for recreating higher prosperity for Michigan, making it a place with a per capita income above the national average in both national expansions and contractions. This is a status we enjoyed for most of the last century and have now entirely lost. In 2015 we were eleven percent below the national average in per capita income.

Michigan Future’s basic conclusion:  “What most distinguishes successful areas from Michigan is their concentrations of talent, where talent is defined as a combination of knowledge, creativity, and entrepreneurship. In a flattening world where work can increasingly be done anyplace by anybody, the places with the greatest concentrations of talent win.”

Lou Glazer, Michigan Future’s president, and CEO who’s like a pebble in your shoe reminds us that we need to change our thinking and investment strategies around education and workforce preparation. He implores policymakers to read a column by Heather E. McGowan entitledPreparing Students to Lose Their Job:

Glazer points out that it is the best description he has read on the need to change the mission of education from one that prepares people for a job to one that prepares people for continuous job loss and re-learning. This was the point of my column on these pages last week: In A Disruptive World: Free College For All –

Michigan – a “Brain Bank”?

We must ask ourselves if our public investment is targeted in ways that will make Michigan the “brain bank of the world”, where everyone comes for deposits and withdrawals. Is there a shared vision and common agenda to take us to a place where we will thrive in our fast-paced, technologically-driven, knowledge economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly?

Instead, it seems that as a state and nation we would rather fight partisan, ideologically-driven wars of the past than come together to develop a plan to help us prosper in a future of automation and artificial intelligence. Other nations grasp the new reality and are now speeding past us in their electric, autonomous vehicles, leaving the “American Dream” in their clean air exhaust.

Governor Snyder has his Marshall Plan and his 21st Century Education Commission which seems to be a solid foundation upon which to build:,4668,7-277-61409_81147—,00.html

Business Leaders for Michigan have their plan,

The Michigan Department of Education has their strategic plan:

The Beat Goes On

We may need to lock the various “players” from education (especially teachers) politics, business, foundations, labor, community activists in a room to hammer out an single educational direction for our collective future that is being driven by data. Not the old partisan ideology and rhetoric of the past. Who can call the parties together and hold them accountable to produce a pathway to success?

As history has taught us, without a vision (a plan of action PLUS budget), people will perish.

Candidates who want to replace Governor Snyder needs to articulate a vision for positioning Michigan to lead in a changing world.

Nothing is more important.

Tom Watkins eclectic career includes: Michigan’s state superintendent of public instruction, president and CEO of the economic council, special assistant to the president of WSU, management consultant with Plante and Moran CPA firm, and his own consulting business in the U.S. and China. He can be emailed at: [email protected], or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins has an eclectic career in both the public and private sectors. He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and director of the department of mental health. He has held leadership positions in higher education, business and behavioral health. Watkins has a interest and passion in all things China and has written hundreds of article on the value of this most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

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George W. Bird
George W. Bird


Recent evidence of the seriousness of the situation.

Yesterday I had a comprehensive discussion with an extremely bright and dynamic individual that returned to Michigan in 2017, after being gone for ten years. The individual indicated that Michigan is no longer what it once was, and is seriously considering leaving.


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