MACKINAC ISLAND - Michigan can gain a competitive edge over other states by filling a skills gap that leads to good jobs going unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates, Gov. Rick Snyder said Thursday.
"The jurisdiction, the place that does this the best over the next few years will have a strategic economic advantage," he told a crowd during his keynote speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference, the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual meeting for more than 1,500 business, political and civil leaders. "Companies will be coming to that location because there is such a national problem with this issue. When you talk about issues and you talk about the future, I put this at the top of the list."
Snyder said, as he has before, that there are at least 70,000 unfilled positions listed on a state-sponsored jobs website. That's despite a seasonally adjusted state unemployment rate of 7.4 last month, higher than the national average of 6.3 percent.
Gov. Rick Snyder is interviewed at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island on Wednesday. (AP photo)
"That's an understated number," he said of the jobs total, adding that employers have told him they do not bother posting five or 10 more of the same kind of job because they cannot fill one.
Snyder said he has held economic and education summits to encourage collaboration between businesses and colleges or technical institutes, but added that is "still not good enough."
University degrees in science, technology, engineering and math are important, but Michigan has failed to underscore the significance of skilled trades and career technical programs, he said.
For more on the conference, see page 5A
"That is a huge opportunity. We need to get out there," Snyder said.
Snyder, who is seeking re-election later this year, mentioned some programs designed to fix the problem, including the Michigan Advanced Technician Training program, where employers pay tuition for three years for employees who rotate between working and getting an advanced associate's degree.
A similar program is Grand Rapids Community College's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.
Democrats on Thursday said fewer jobs are being created than when Snyder first took office.
"If it weren't for the auto companies' rebound - which has nothing to do with Snyder's policies - there would be nearly no job growth in Michigan since Snyder's policies went into effect," said state Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson.
A conference forum earlier Thursday focused on so-called "STEM" education and its importance.
Kalamazoo Valley Community College President Marilyn Schlack said K-12 school districts have de-emphasized technical education.
"It's expensive. Students haven't wanted to be involved," she said.
Schlack said the college and school districts partnered to create a consortium to encourage students to have a hands-on experience in welding, nursing, hospitality and graphic arts.
"We need to be much more focused on competency-based education," she said.