Upskilling Dislocated Manufacturing Workers in Michigan

This blog was written by Heather Lewis-Charp of Social Policy Research Associates.

Photo from Kellogg Community College, one of the eight community college supported by M-CAM.

Macomb County Michigan made national headlines after the 2016 presidential election, because the characteristics and voting choices of its electorate were perceived to have been key to the outcome of one of the most fiercely contested elections in recent memory. The results highlighted the negative influence that the shifting manufacturing economy has had on working class men in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics, annual average unemployment rate (not seasonally adjusted).

In many ways, Macomb County, home to General Motors, is a microcosm for larger economic trends in the US. Manufacturing jobs in the county have dwindled in the last 15 years, from over 106,000 in 2000 to just over 62,000. There is a large population of workers in Macomb County that have a seen their careers and employment prospects decline dramatically.

As part of a recent study SPR is conducting in Macomb County, and elsewhere in Michigan, we interviewed numerous older workers who had seen their wages stagnate or drop over the course of 15 years. We interviewed a 49-year-old case study student who had lived in Macomb County his whole life, had weathered multiple rounds of layoffs, and had experienced significant wage losses over time. In his most recent job he was making $10 an hour less than he had made a decade previously. He described:

“I had been unemployed since October 2014…. I got let go there because I was temporary. The plant…got rid of all the temporary employees. So I’ve been unemployed since then. When I started this [training program], my unemployment had [been] exhausted, and I was basically just surviving off what my wife was bringing in.”

While the decline in the total number of manufacturing jobs is a huge challenge for Macomb County, there has also been a transformation in the types of jobs that manufacturing workers do.

Two Welders

All of the Welding programs at M-CAM colleges reported high use of hands-on learning due to the nature of the field. This photo from Lake Michigan shows hands-on learning in one of the new credit-based Welding programs at that college. Lake Michigan hired a new AWS certified instructor in welding in order to be able to expand the credit-based offerings in the pathway.

Manufacturing jobs that pay living wages now require higher levels of education and training than they have in the past, as workers now need to program and troubleshoot the machines and robots that do much of the assembly-line work.

One of the ironies of the new economy is that, despite a surplus in workers, employers complain that they cannot find candidates with the level of training needed to fill the jobs that are available. For example, one Macomb employer told us, “There is very high demand [for skilled workers] and very few candidates out there. They are very difficult to find. The better ones have moved out of state or are currently working, so it’s difficult to find those skills for any technical positions.”

The training programs that we are evaluating were designed to help close the gap between the skills that workers have and the jobs that are available in this new manufacturing economy. The programs, which were supported by a $24.9 million grant by the U.S. Department of Labor, went to eight community colleges in Michigan known as the Michigan Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing (M-CAM). They were used to support updates in manufacturing equipment and on-campus technology, improve student access to career advising, and align training programs with employer needs.

As described in our interim report, the training programs have had quite positive outcomes so far. Among the most significant:

Colleges are using the $24.9 million grant to update equipment and on-campus technology, enhance coordination and build capacity across the eight colleges, improve student access to career advising, and engage employers to better align training to meet future job needs.

♦ M-CAM participants across the eight colleges earned 1,727 college certificates, 1,482 professional credentials, and 83 degrees.

♦ Three-quarters of participants who successfully completed their programs were employed by the end of the first quarter after exit.

♦ About three-quarters (74%) of incumbent worker participants who successfully completed their programs earned a wage increase after enrollment. On average, incumbent workers received a 10 percent wage increase because of M-CAM training.

♦ Across the consortium, the number of reported employer partnerships nearly doubled, from 204 in Fall 2014 to 392 in Spring 2016.

These are just preliminary findings, as our final report on M-CAM will not be completed until September 2017.

Although these programs cannot address the macro-economic shifts in the manufacturing economy, they do show great promise for upskilling and retraining workers so that they can find meaningful work. They have made a significant difference for individual workers, who have seen their life prospects change considerably. As one student from Macomb County said:

“I went from looking for a job to jobs looking for me now…. It changed my life, because I went from, like I say, from unemployed and the job I had before that one I was getting about $16.00 or $17.00 an hour and that was, I thought that was good. But, I went from that to $22.00 an hour plus per diems because I’m on a traveling team, so, it was, it’s definitely life altering.”