With its once-vibrant manufacturing base in the last stages of a deathly stupor, Michigan already faced the second-highest unemployment of any state in the country last December. Add to that the recent buyouts at Ford and continued losses reported by General Motors and Chrysler, and you have all the ingredients for a classic decline from boomtown to just another stop along the rust belt. But of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Community colleges present one alternative that laid-off workers have recently taken advantage of.

Sarah Royce

For decades, experts have warned of the need for a completely revamped labor force for Michigan to avoid misery once the Big Three faltered. In recent years, these pragmatic calls have intensified, especially on this page. But while we may wax progressive about the need to retrain the state’s labor force right up till GM files for bankruptcy, it’s easy to grow weary of such seemingly impractical solutions.

An Associated Press report printed yesterday, however, should help prove that the longstanding stance of the state’s progressives is not only possible but actually practical. According to the report, enrollment at the state’s 28 community colleges has jumped over the last five years, partially because laid-off workers have enrolled to gear up for new careers.

State lawmakers continue to fail the state’s workers by under-funding education at all levels and pretending that even at 7.1 percent, state unemployment is completely under control. It’s encouraging to see workers themselves ignore such empty blue-sky rhetoric and take their futures into their own hands.

Those raised on the ideology of “Why go to college when you can get on the assembly line and make the same money now?” were left behind as Ford and GM shifted operations abroad to counter spiraling losses. The state legislature has always pretended that these workers couldn’t be trusted to see the light, that asking them to retrain and change their mindset on employment would mean losing votes. Alas, the Republicans who long controlled both houses of the state legislature underestimated the intelligence of Michigan’s workers.

As former assembly line workers get in line at community colleges and trade schools, it’s time that the legislature matched their initiative. Gov. Jennifer Granholm introduced her “No Worker Left Behind” proposal in her State of the State address last month. It would allow laid-off workers to attend two years of community college or trade school for free to revitalize their employment prospects. The initiative carries a $230-million price tag, but that’s a small price to pay to brighten the state’s future.

Granted that the state expects an immense budget shortfall in the foreseeable future, Granholm did provide a plan to pay for her plan. But state Republicans couldn’t possibly be expected to accept a proposal for a 2-percent tax hike on some services without looking upward for cracks in the sky.

The Republican strategy of cutting taxes to attract businesses has done the state no favors, as the recent departure of Pfizer from Ann Arbor attests. There are efforts for which the government must spend money, and this money cannot come through cuts in other areas alone. If taxes on some services have to go up for Michigan’s workers to receive adequate training for employment, can anyone really argue that it’s not worth it?

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