Ten years ago, the biggest problem Michigan faced was a lack of jobs. This led to the exodus of people in search of opportunity – especially young people. In the first 10 years of this century, Michigan was the only state to lose population. Ten years later, everything has changed.

Brian Calley is president of the Small Business Association of Michigan

In 2019, across virtually every industry in our state, our employers are experiencing critical shortages in available talent to fill the jobs they are creating. In many ways this is our biggest obstacle to recognizing our full economic potential.

Thankfully, we are seeing more and more business engagement in both establishing educational policy and partnering with schools to enhance the effectiveness and relevance of the education being provided. But the shortages have become so severe that we need to be thinking on a much bigger scale than we ever have before.

There are two areas where I believe we can make a huge difference in a relatively short period of time. The first is to fully embrace and aggressively pursue Gov. Whitmer’s 60 by 30 goal and her proposed policies to reach that goal. The concept is for Michigan to up-skill its existing workforce so that 60 percent of our employment base has at least an associate’s degree or a skill certificate by the year 2030.

Kids graduating from high school today are continuing their education at a higher rate than the Baby Boomers they are replacing in the workplace, which will help to naturally increase that percentage. But demographics are not our friend. To achieve this ambitious goal, we still need to help and inspire hundreds of thousands of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 to go back to school.

Gov. Whitmer looked to best practices in other states and proposed the MI Opportunity Scholarship and Reconnect programs, wisely based off the successes experienced in Tennessee. The concept is to provide last dollar support for tuition to a community college for both graduating seniors and adults already in the workforce.

This is not just a giveaway. The students have the responsibility to apply for available scholarship support first, including Pell Grants, so that the Michigan support is truly last dollars in. The students must maintain a minimum GPA, meet regularly with a guidance counselor, remain continuously enrolled and perform regular community service.

While increasing the number of employees with post-high school credentials is essential for businesses of all sizes, it is also an awesome pathway to a better life for Michiganders. There is a strong coordination between higher education attainment and higher income.

The Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM) is fully supportive of both the MI Opportunity Scholarship and Reconnect programs. It has the scale that we need to build a more robust and prosperous future for our state and our people.

One thing we know is that if you want a different outcome, you really need to pursue different strategies and tactics to achieve that outcome. The second area that I believe we can make a big difference in the size and effectiveness of talent is in the area of disability employment.

Most companies would be supportive and open to more hiring of people with disabilities, but if we’re being honest and blunt, as a society we are not very good at this. Most people with disabilities are determined, creative, innovative and know how to persevere. These are great qualities for any employee to have, and yet people with disabilities are too often overlooked.

The SBAM is teaming up with disability service providers to change this. Even after 10 years of economic growth, there are still some people who have been left out. We want to change this because we need more talented employees, and because it’s the right thing to do.

This fall, Justice Richard Bernstein and I will relaunch the MI Hidden Talent initiative, this time more focused on helping small businesses (who provide 78 percent of the employment in our state) recruit, employ and retain more employees with disabilities.

Change never comes easy, but this kind of change is well worth the effort. Michigan can extend this remarkable period of economic growth. The key to that will be helping our people reach their full potential.

Brian Calley is president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. Calley, who served as the Michigan 63rd lieutenant governor (2011-18), is a director of a publicly traded community bank and an Oakland University trustee. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Special Olympics Michigan and the Autism Alliance of Michigan.