Beginning next semester, it’s back to school for 50 engineers at General Motors Corp. As part of a collaboration with the University, these workers will be joining a program that focuses on teaching them important new skills in alternative energy development and new technologies. At a time when GM is struggling to stay in business, this type of mutually beneficial partnership is good for the University and the state. It’s also a stark reminder that Michigan workers as a whole are sorely lacking in exactly the kind of experience they will need to save this state’s economy.
Created last year, the program is designed to pair engineers with experts at the University who can teach them about alternative energy methods, particularly involving electric batteries. Originally, the program included 25 GM workers. It will now take on an extra 50 employees, who will take online courses in three different areas of study: civil power, transportation power and microelectric and portable power. The hope is that as new technologies are developed and engineers familiarized with new practices, GM will have an easier time implementing these improvements.
GM is certainly correct in its thinking: developing these skills is critical. Moving ahead of foreign competition in profitable alternative energy vehicles has been a hurdle that GM has stumbled over trying to jump. So part of the reason the company is begging on Washington D.C.’s doorstep is because it has failed to remedy the situation. The first step to recovery, as the adage goes, is admitting you have a problem. If GM is going to prove itself worthy of $18 billion in federal loans, it will need to implement many more programs to revolutionize the company and its products.
This isn’t just a GM problem, though. On a broader scale, Michigan’s workforce is simply not trained to meet the challenges of the future, despite programs like No Worker Left Behind. During the past seven years, Michigan has consistently ranked in the bottom half of states in terms of residents with professional degrees and near the top in terms of high school dropouts. When all this is considered, it’s clear that Michigan is one of the worst states for technological growth to be implemented.
Of course, there is a reason Michigan is so far behind: its lack of commitment to education. During the past seven years, the state has cut higher education funding by more than any other in the country and is still one of only three states to spend more money on prisons than higher education. As GM’s new program shows, education is not just a way to attract new industry; it is also a way to make the industry more competitive.
While it’s a good thing that GM has identified one of its many weak points and is seeking to improve, neither this company nor the state as a whole will be able to make the necessary transition overnight. Michigan’s workforce needs to go back to school before the state can graduate to the level of new technology and energy-efficiency it so desperately needs.