Built in Detroit: Strengthening the Motor City’s Talent Pipeline

With the economic reality that two-thirds of jobs will require education beyond high school by 2020, it’s clear that education or training beyond high school is a prerequisite for individuals to flourish in an increasingly complex and fluid talent economy. This also has clear, and worrying, implications for recovering economies across the United States: businesses cannot optimize for growth and innovation without a strong talent pipeline.

Despite the increasing demand for educated talent, only 39 percent of Detroit region’s workforce holds an associate’s degree or higher. A Detroit resident with a high school diploma and college degree decreases his or her likelihood of unemployment from 35 percent to 11 percent. For communities like Detroit with aging workers and slowing population growth, expanding educational opportunity is essential to close human capital shortages. While Detroit continues its economic turnaround and reinvention, importing the talent needed to drive our future economy at scale is infeasible, so homegrown talent represents our greatest asset. In a region as racially and socioeconomically diverse as Detroit, nothing can be more important than ensuring that we are taking all steps necessary to connect potential workers to our pool of available jobs.

Educational equity is a powerful determinant for economic development since competition for talent itself is increasingly influencing where corporations like Amazon decide to expand. Highly-educated cities will not only be more successful in recruiting international companies to relocate but also have higher per capita incomes. Economists refer to this phenomenon as the talent dividend, which holds that every percentage point increase in the four-year college attainment rate raises per capita income by $1,250.

All of this evidence gets to the heart of the issue. While the demand for talent continues to grow, gaps in educational equity and stagnant outcomes are holding us back. Fully 40 percent of Michigan’s population are expected to be people of color by 2050. Yet, in Michigan only 26 percent of Black and 24 percent of Hispanic residents ages 25-64 have at least an Associate’s Degree, compared to 42 percent of Whites.

Michigan communities currently miss out on the contributions of would-be minority entrepreneurs, inventors and other leaders, who are left behind by not completing postsecondary education. Recent research suggests that reducing disparities accelerates economic growth. For example, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation projects the “U.S. economy would be $2.3 trillion larger by 2050 if the educational achievement of Black and Hispanic/Latino children was raised to that of White children.”

For all of these reasons, Detroit’s business community is becoming a staunch advocate for advancing educational opportunity, success, and equity. The Detroit Regional Chamber has taken this issue head-on through our Detroit Drives Degrees (D3) coalition, which supports postsecondary opportunity among low-income and minority students. With the right approach, the business community can bring to bear its resources, expertise, and innovations to close equity gaps, increase employment and unlock opportunity. Some examples of what we’re doing in Detroit:

Provide ready-made opportunities for businesses to be career ambassadors. To build a strong pipeline of talent from K-12 schools to college to workforce, there must be consistent reinforcement of career opportunity and preparation across that continuum. The Chamber and its partners have mobilized our regional employer base to recruit company employees who can serve as ambassadors. These volunteers and advocates visit underserved students at middle and high schools to share their own experience and to emphasize the importance of training beyond high school and help expose them to college-to-career pathways.

 Re-engage adult learners to complete postsecondary training. At the Chamber, we encourage companies to offer tuition supports and flexible schedules that would enable the 693,000 “some college, no degree” adults in the region to complete school. Discover Financial Services and Cigna Health Insurance found that employer tuition reimbursement programs produced high returns on investment, 144% and 129% respectively. We also leverage local higher education institutions to reduce financial barriers for returning adult students. The Chamber partners closely with Wayne State University, which recently launched a groundbreaking debt forgiveness initiative that enables former students with an outstanding balance to re-enroll and “learn” away past debt. Because of our efforts in this area, we received a Talent Hub designation from Lumina Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.

 Increase support where it’s most needed. While other communities across the country experiment with college promise programs, the Chamber has taken an innovative approach in administering the Detroit Promise, a last-dollar scholarship that provides universal college access to over 3,400 high school graduates. Because simply financing college is insufficient to ensure low-income and first-generation students graduate, the Detroit Promise Path provides additional financial supports to alleviate students’ transportation costs and employs a team of success coaches, who have helped significantly improve college persistence through intensive counseling to students, modeled after the highly successful CUNY ASAP program and other student success programs.

Through all of these efforts, we are building out a data-driven approach to expanding educational opportunity and equity in the region. The capstone to this work is our effort to facilitate a communitywide goal to reduce disparities in educational attainment. Members of the Detroit Drives Degrees coalition across sectors have committed to reducing by half the difference in educational attainment between White and Black residents by 2030 and will publish annual reports to monitor our progress.

Our belief is that the same policy innovations that meet business needs can also increase educational equity and success across the region. Initial results are promising. Our hope is that Detroit can demonstrate how diverse constituencies — education advocates and business leaders — can collaborate effectively because of their common interest in cultivating the untapped potential of a broader, more diverse skilled workforce. This coalition is not novel, but instead, based on a longstanding and shared commitment to the most basic of our country’s ideals: the promise of upward mobility for all Americans.