Infrastructure and Education Crumbling: Michigan needs Bold Leadership

By on March 15th, 2018

There is a way forward in dealing with disruptive global change and automation that sometimes feels like a slap in the face to good, hard working Michiganders.

Many citizens, attempting to play by the rulebook in creating a decent life for themselves and their loved ones, may feel the cards are stacked against them. Worse still, many feel our elected leaders are impervious to their pain and are not taking actions to address the problems we face.

Policymakers at the state and national levels tend to ignore these citizens needs and delay, neglect, and duck in making tough decisions until a problem is so major that it can’t be ignored. Not what I call leadership. With an election coming, arrives a great opportunity to choose our leaders.

Michigan will be nominating candidates for Governor later this summer and voting in the next governor this November.  Don’t know who is running? There is still time to get engaged and informed. Our future depends on it.  Michigan needs a bold leader willing to guide this state to the next level and not allow further backsliding when it comes to investments that pay dividends for our people.

Two quick cases in point: Michigan roads and schools. We have potholes in more than just our roads. Our lousy roads are merely a metaphor for what happens when problems are ignored and neglected. Our deteriorating roads are plain to see. 

What is not as plain is the inadequate investment in education in our state the past two decades: investment in K-12, vocational schools, our community colleges and universities. While we can thank Governor Snyder for a significant bump in the K-12 school aid fund in his final budget, it does not make up for the historical neglect.  The neglect of our educational institutions are more difficult to see than the ever-present potholes. Long-term damage to the prosperity to our state will be far greater to assess.

While we disinvest in what makes us stronger, our major international competitor—China—is taking the opposite tack. The visual is a see-saw, and we are not in the upper position.  China has been investing in both their physical and human infrastructure. Yet, here at home we have been slow or have yet to invest in ways that will not only repair our infrastructure – streets, sewers and bridges – but prepare our students and workforce for their future, not our past.

A  Brave new World

Let’s be clear: our children are not simply going to be competing against kids in the next school district, city or state— they will be competing against the children of the global workforce.  Will they be prepared?  What we once had in Michigan – a strong industrial and educated workforce – is now gone. This is our new reality.  What we make of it is up to us.

Elections are citizens’ reset buttons.  As the election season arrives, look for answers, not blame.  To “blame China” or simply the other political party for what ails us is foolhardy.  Both are good sidesteps for politicians looking to play on our fears and do nothing to help us or our families.  Are there and have there been problems with free and “fair” trade with China? Currency manipulation and intellectual property theft? Absolutely. Yet, as my old football coach told me when I complained about the other team, “Get in there and find a way to win!” 

It is time to ask ourselves how “blaming the other guy” helps address our problems.  We need a governor that is willing to lead change— not simply react to it. That includes investment in areas that will make us strong and competitive on the global stage, protecting what makes Michigan a great place to live, work play and raise a family.  We have made up some ground in coming off the “lost decade” and the worst recession since the Great Depression. To suggest that these gains are something to crow about is like saying your child is the smartest kid in the dumbest class—it is a dubious honor at best. 

The Business Leaders for Michigan ( calls for greater investment in infrastructure, pushing a tax increase to pay for the state’s  historic neglect as well as, “to return higher education funding to $1 billion annually, from near $500 million currently.”

Business leaders in Michigan, along with every thinking parent, understand that the lack of investment in infrastructure and education is holding Michigan back. Isn’t it about time policymakers in Lansing caught up? 

Demand Answers

  • Ask those running to replace term limited Governor Snyder specifically what are they going to do about:
  • Our crumbling and deteriorating infrastructure, roads, bridges water and sewer systems? How do they plan to invest in the education and workforce preparedness of workers displaced by automation?  Don’t allow the politicians to divide and conquer. We need investment in Pre-K-12, community colleges, universities as well as trade schools, apprenticeship and certification programs. Don’t allow them to force you in to false choices; we need to be doing more in ALL of these areas.
  • How do they plan to help workers that have been displaced by globalization and automation reenter the workforce? These are not disposable people— these are our family members, neighbors and friends. They need and deserve our collective help to adjust to a disruptive world, driven by technology where ideas and jobs can – and do – move around the globe effortlessly.
  • Ask how they plan to think and act differently in this fast paced world. Clearly we can’t get to the future with our eyes fixed in the rearview mirror.  Ask them to demonstrate not simply what they are going to do— but what they HAVE done to embrace innovation and change that has led to progress? 

Talking about change is easy. Demonstrating how they will LEAD change should be a minimum criteria for admission into the awesome role of governor of this great state.

Real Change Requires Real Change

Real change requires stepping away from policies and practices that may have worked in the past but are hindering our capability to get Michigan to where we need to be.  Ask each of the candidates to define at least one bold idea that they will pledge to accomplish in their first term as governor to truly help Michiganders. Ask if they will agree not to seek a second term if they fail to deliver. If they want your vote, they must be willing go big or go home. 

With advances in automation and artificial intelligence that promises to bring about even greater disruption of traditional ways for most successful Michiganders, expect a massive change tsunami coming.  A leader to manage this change must lay out a shared vision along with a pledge to form a common agenda that makes Michigan work for average families who live, love and work in the two beautiful Michigan peninsulas we call home.

We can’t continue to pretend to fix problems— instead let’s meet them head on. 

As most of we homeowners know, pretending to fix a hole in your roof does not keep the rain out. Sooner or later you must actually fix the roof.

Michigan is no longer a leading state. We can be if we elect a leader who places the aspirations of its people above political ideology and cheap rhetoric to embrace a bold vision of investment in that which makes us stronger.  

Will we?

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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Jon Madian
Jon Madian

Extending the teeter-totter metaphor, this is a beautifully balanced article that goes to the heart of the matter. We have to stop thinking about investing in walls and begin investing in people’s education, roads and bridges. Not to compete with anyone, so much, as to invest in our potential to make life better for everyone.

Richard Cole
Richard Cole

Tom: Good article, and I know you’ve heard me rail and read my articles in Dome on the “dirt road lobby” in Lansing that has been doing its best to turn the state into Michissippi for the past decade. You say: “Michigan is no longer a leading state. We can be if we elect a leader who places the aspirations of its people above political ideology and cheap rhetoric to embrace a bold vision of investment in that which makes us stronger. Will we?” Will we WHAT, Tom? Will we elect a leader and walk away as if our job… Read more »

Constance Kelly
Constance Kelly

“We need a governor that is willing to lead change— not simply react to it” There is a growing wave of support for a candidate who has a fully fleshed out program that addresses the areas of deepest need and concern in the state and who is not tied to corporate “endorsements” such as BC/BS. We do not see Whitmer as the strong leader the state needs but rather as someone who offers little of substance to those who want a fresh look at old problems. I am proud to count myself among the backers of Abdul El-Sayed. This candidate… Read more »

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