It seems nobody’s job is safe in Michigan anymore. Not with an automobile industry that still has yet to realize gas efficiency – not monster sports utility vehicles – is what consumers want. Not with cities like Detroit drowning in so much debt (and taking in so little tax) that they must lay off teachers and close schools. And not with the recent announcement that Pfizer will be closing its 2,100-person operation in Ann Arbor, the coup de grace that should serve as a final notice to disbelievers that the phrase Michigan economy is all but a misnomer. When Ann Arbor – which the Detroit Free Press recently declared the model for all of Michigan to follow – hits an economic rough patch, the rest of the state better brace itself.
Some of Michigan’s economic turmoil was predictable, like the fall of the Big Three. With the rise of foreign competition, which produces exponentially better cars at comparable prices, the sky falling on American automakers was more an issue of when, not if. Add to that the immense cost of healthcare, which many foreign competitors don’t pay because their governments ensure healthcare for citizens, and pensions, and American auto had nowhere to go but down. The bloodletting has been severe and may continue. And that’s not such a big shock, really.
But no one saw Pfizer coming – or leaving, I should say. Since the fall of American auto, public intellectuals like Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” have told us that education rather than tax abatements or givebacks is the key in attracting recruiters. The smarter the workforce, as Florida’s thesis goes, the more attractive the region looks to businesses.
Education is certainly what made Ann Arbor so attractive to Pfizer and Google. Recently acclaimed by Forbes magazine as the third smartest city in America, nearly half of Ann Arbor’s adults hold bachelor’s degrees, and almost 5 percent of all residents have doctorates. If ever there were a city whose populace can serve the needs of major corporations, it’s Ann Arbor.
So why has Pfizer decided to leave? Because business is still measured in dollars and cents, Pfizer’s revenues no longer justified the outlay. As long as business cycles swing so violently, there will always be the risk that companies will pack up and leave. Without entrepreneurial education in schools, Michigan’s future will remain at the mercy of corporations that exist for profit, not public good.
The lesson to take from Pfizer closing its doors in Ann Arbor is that we cannot expect too much from corporations. Despite all the talk that Pfizer has left Ann Arbor in the lurch, the firm did no less for Ann Arbor than it promised; stick around for six to 12 years, add to the city’s tax base (Pfizer was Ann Arbor’s biggest taxpayer) and provide high-quality jobs in the area for as long as it remained profitable. But tax cuts and cheap land can only do so much, especially when a company is claiming losses. Businesses exist to make money. When they don’t, they make changes.
The job market of our grandparents’ time – especially in this state – is long gone and probably will never return. Gone are the days when workers did their jobs, executives sold the product and everyone went home with a paycheck. Nowadays, you can’t just do your job, you must be an amateur financial analyst, keeping abreast of stock quotes and profit margins just to see if your job is secure. When holding a science-based Ph.D. isn’t a guarantor that you’ll keep your job, it’s clear we’ve only reached the tip of our economic iceberg, and what lies beneath is far more menacing.
The Daily is right that Pfizer’s departure should open eyes in Lansing (What Pfizer can teach us, 01/23/2007). The exodus of big corporations from Michigan over the last two decades is positive proof that the current focus of our education system is misguided. Perhaps if schools focused a little more on training students to run their own businesses and a little less on how to be good worker bees, our state wouldn’t be hit so hard by corporate layoffs. Until then, we will just have to wait for the next Pfizer to come around, I suppose.
James Dickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org