Mobility Moments Podcast: Embedded at Mackinac Policy Conference with Roger Curtis

Driven - Mobility Moment: Roger Curtis, Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development

From picturesque Mackinac Island, I'm Claire Charlton, your host for another special edition of Driven's Mobility Moments Podcast, embedded at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Here on the island, I shared one lunchtime with Roger Curtis. He's the director of the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development. In the Grand Hotel's Geranium Bar, we shared our mutual frustration for the endless talk that is sometimes disguised as action. That very morning, in a session called "Upping Michigan's Talent Game: Attracting and Retaining STEM Professionals," Curtis unveiled a dynamic program aimed at attracting grads with STEAM degrees. The campaign is called "Choose Michigan," and it goes live this month.

We took a deep dive into some of the finer points of "Choose Michigan." We start off with defining the "A" in STEAM and talk about the role art has played in the design of the cell phone and so many other forms of technology. Let's have a listen.

Can I just ask you, just to confirm. We talk about STEM, STEM, STEM, and now we're talking about STEAM. Arts is the "A". Tell me about how that fits into a highly tech-centric workforce.

Sure. Well, first, I want to thank you for recognizing that we're doing something. I am so tired of studies and panels and conversations, and I know policy conferences are about that, but I think we've identified the problems. I think we've identified a lot of solutions. It's time to do them. I don't care if it's infrastructure or education or talent attraction, and so I'm really, really proud of our team and the work they've put into this. And the other stuff. The Marshall Plan. The "Going Pro" campaign. We launched an apprenticeship program last week, but yes. So thank you for recognizing that.

The "A" is really important. People forget about the "A" in STEAM, so thank you for asking about that as well, because I'm going to hold up this device [mobile phone]. Has a lot of "A" in it. It has a lot of STEAM. Took a lot of engineering, took a lot of manufacturing knowhow. Took a lot of technology. It is technology. It's a handheld technology device, but there was design, there was form, there was function.

I think sometimes people, when they hear "A," they hear, "Arts." They think, "Van Gogh, Monet, Mozart." Maybe "The Rolling Stones," if you're rock 'n' roll. The "A" for us, really is about design, form, function. It takes that side of the brain to work in conjunction with a partnership with the other side of the brain, and whether it's one person or groups of individuals coming together as a team, that's going to be really important as we go forward. And so, I love ... We've brought this focus on STEM, but I really do feel the "A" needs to be in there.

Do you know what the "A" says to me? Diversity of thought.

Yeah. Absolutely. And that's critical. You know, we'll pick on mobility for a minute. Everyone wants to talk about PlanetM, mobility, the automobile. To think that we're going to switch from the vehicles we have today, which many of them have become art forms, to an autonomous vehicle and the expectations of the customer to not have any art, any design, any form, any functionality. You're looking at entertainment centers, basically in some of these. So, what is that going to look like? How's it going to feel? If I'm not busy driving now, my expectations of the "A" in my automobile ... the art part of my automobile, my transportation just skyrocketed. So what is that going to be? I think it's very important that we continue the conversation with the "A" in STEAM.

And so, with regard to mobility, and whatever that means. Connected vehicles, autonomous vehicles, we're really staking our future on here, at least in southeast Michigan, and Michigan as a whole. What are some of the things that we could be doing better? Now, this morning, one of the things that stuck with me that you said, was that qualified talent, we're getting jobs faster somewhere else. And to me, I was just like, "Oh man. Red tape." Are we still mired here in red tape, doing things the way we've always done them? Waiting for months to get a job offer. Because that, you know, for anyone ... That's frustrating for a kid just coming out of colleges who's bursting. That's a killer.

It really is. Great question. Great observation. I wish I had more information. We kind of just uncovered the surface of that issue. What was interesting to us in all of the graduates who left the state of Michigan that we talked to, that cited slow HR as a reason for them leaving, because other states were reacting faster. It was every industry. So it wasn't just the automotive industry. It wasn't the OEM's and the suppliers. It wasn't just the healthcare providers. It wasn't just the IT companies. It wasn't just Quicken Loans. It was kind of across the board. And that's what threw us for, probably the bigger loop, was that you couldn't say, "Oh, well it's just Industry X, and they have a culture steeped in." It was everything.

And so, we do want to do a little more digging there. I think we want to bring in some other partners. That's not really necessarily our area of expertise, so we may even want to bring in some associations of...

Of HR professionals?

Yeah. HR professionals. Because for that to be ... There were really only two reasons why people left, and it was a tie. Wages and slow response.

And wages was my next question. I've heard that before, that employers need to recognize that they need to start paying more. What's it going to take? Is that the case? Do employers need to pay more, or do we just rely on the lower cost of living? Because it's not cheap to live here.

So that argument, because we hear that all the time, and we went into that with that ... This whole thing is about a lot of misperceptions, right? We had one. That all we had to do was tell everyone about our lower cost of living, and people would just come flooding here.

Well, in certain markets, very specific markets, that's still a fair case to make. And it did resonate with our focus groups, but in some markets, one of them being San Francisco, Silicon Valley, even with an exorbitant rate of an apartment that's the size of a broom closet versus what you could get here, they still were going to end up in the negative here, because of the lower wage. The wages were that much higher in places like Silicon Valley that they're like, "Nope. That cost of living argument doesn't' work with me."

Especially when you're talking about a young professional who will room together, who will share housing.

Yes. The one thing that did resonate in some of those markets though was, "the big fish in the small pond."

Because you're getting ... All of us would love to be a big fish in a big pond, but they were starting to recognize, "Hey, some of these areas that maybe are starting to plateau in their growth, at least relatively speaking, like a Silicon Valley. I'm starting out as a little fish in a big pond. And yeah, they all had healthy egos with, "I could make a difference here," but there's also a sense of realism for a lot of them, that, you know, "I might want to start looking. What is the next Silicon Valley? Where is that going to be?" Austin, Boston, Atlanta? They certainly get a lot of play. They get a lot of publicity.

We felt like in our research, that once people knew our story and knew the opportunities with the work-life balance, which was still the number one after the job itself, and the wage associated with that job, number one was work-life balance. If we told them about Michigan, and told them about the jobs, and told them about the leisure activities and unique events, that we had a chance. That Michigan would be in the consideration of where they wanted to go.

You must be reading my notes, because that's the next thing I wanted to ask. Having a life outside of work. When I first got out of college, it was, "I'm going to dedicate my life to my work," and that was just the thing that you would do. Young professionals now, young kids coming out of school are saying, "I want work-life balance," but are the companies that they're going to be hired into, do they understand that? Or are they saying, "Yeah, you're the young ones, so that means you get to put in the 80 hours a week."

Businesses are going to have to adapt, because Millennials, they just won't do that. I heard someone say the other day that previous generations, or Millennials, are working to live. Previous generations have lived to work. That is not going to be them. Oh, they'll work hard, because they're very passionate. They are very driven. They are very career-oriented. I think it's a huge misperception on people's part, because there for a while, there was, "Oh, Millennials are lazy. They want promoted yesterday."

I think that is a stereotype that was perpetuated by a minority of them. I'm not saying they don't exist. I've had a few on my teams over the years. They're there. But the vast majority of them, particularly young Millennials, STEAM professionals and ones that are just now graduating, are very driven. And they want to change the world.

Like I said earlier, they have healthy egos. They want to be the ones to change the world. But, they still want to hang out with their friends. They still want to go to music festivals. They still want to have a craft beer. They still want to do crazy stuff like zombie runs and Slow Rolls. Things that we have in the state of Michigan that's very unique to Michigan, that we don't tell that story a lot.

Pure Michigan does an amazing job with that kind of 35-to-54 female demographic, so we talk a lot about beach communities and antique shopping and wine tasting, and they've done an amazing job of growing tourism in this state. Absolutely. But now, we need to be talking to Millennials about coming to live here, not just stay for two weeks. And the kinds of activities that they're interested in are going to be very different than the 45-year-old female that's going to come spend two weeks with their family or their girlfriends.

Right. And I found that it was so interesting that you talked about the "Sherpa" campaign. And I want to hear more about that, because I totally get it, that Millennials, they want to spend time hearing about the great things about Michigan. But not from us, not from the older people, but from their own, their peers.

Millennials are very open for you to kind of hit them upside the head with something. "Hey, did you know this about this?" "No, I didn't." Okay, now I'm done with you. You've got my attention, now I want to talk to another one of me. I want another millennial that I trust.

They're very trusting of other people in their generation, and so that came out loud and clear, and so we called it the Sherpa piece of the campaign. Which we can do all the advertising, the social media, we can have the coolest landing page, but if we don't have the backend part of the conversation, which is really the most meaningful part of the conversation ... "Okay peer. What is it really like there? What is the cost of living? Is Detroit really bad?" Because I heard the perceptions, I'm not kidding. Abandoned, gray, empty. Some really negative stereotypes that you and I would ... I literally laughed when I heard some of these.

We had one kid in our focus group. He's like, "I didn't know where I was going to live, because I thought they were all abandoned buildings."

I just fell out of my chair, but they're real. These are real perceptions that people have, and so we need to, and that's the other point I was really trying to stress. We need to accept that fact, that we live so close to the forest, we can't see some of the trees. And this is a big echo chamber.

We pat ourselves on the back a lot, because we've seen ... And we should, we should. The comeback has been amazing, so I don't want to downplay that. But don't think that someone in Georgia or Massachusetts or Minnesota or Hawaii or wherever you want to go, knows all the details and all the dramatic changes that has happened, because they don't. And that's part of getting their attention. Starting the conversation, and then what we're finding, is particularly with the Detroit chamber, who is starting this process. When they've gone to young professional organizations, they're being inundated with volunteers.

Oh, really?

Yes. Because Millennials love to talk to other Millennials.

And meet other people.

And of the ones that have chosen to come here and have had their minds blown in a positive way, they are so hungry to tell other Millennials about it, which is great. So we're setting this up for success, and we've got all the raw materials there, I think, to really make a very positive change.

How will you roll it out? Will you have info-sessions? Will you hook them up one on one? How will it work?

So, the rollout, internally within our state, we're going to spend the summer between now and August, going to other communities and showing them what we have. Finding out how they'd like to be engaged. At what level do they want to be engaged.

Same with employers. We really want employers to be involved so we can promote them. Promote the events. Promote the opportunities that they have available. The job ... even work-based learning opportunities. Internships. Co-ops. Apprenticeships. Because those are going to be really important for some of the college students we're talking to. Not just the end job. So I think we're going to do a lot of that, but then in August, we will just launch this thing. Our landing page will be done. We'll have all the links. We'll have the Sherpa hopefully. I really hope the other communities, besides providing the wireframe, we will provide the platform, the texting platform. But at the end of the day, each community, you want Millennials from those communities. They're not going to be state-chosen or Detroit-chosen. We want Millennials in Saginaw-

Real life.

Millennials in Traverse City, Millennials in-


Yep. They need to step up and be a part of that. At the end of the day, each community will be responsible for that piece of it, and then we'll do the rest.

This morning, you had some questions about rural areas. Apart from those rural areas that do have a high tech base or some particular companies that are embedded into the community. I would imagine that the rural areas would want to magnify the knock-on effect of tourism, of these people who were coming into ... So rather than having them live there, it's more about they're going to work and then spend all of their time hiking, camping, kayaking, snowshoeing, in the rural areas of Michigan.

I think it's a process, and it's going to take some time. But if everyone understands, and they want to see our data, I'll be more than happy to show it to them, but understand just how little people outside of Michigan know about Michigan. I'm telling you, Detroit equals Michigan. Ann Arbor, God bless them, U of M definitely sticks out. The city as a whole does not.


Very little. Grand Rapids, Traverse City, other communities that you and I would very quickly, as Michiganders, start to roll off our tongues. Grand what? Traverse what? Upper what? It's not there. So to think that, you know, this really is a process, and it's going to start with changing the conversation about Detroit. Creating a better awareness for Ann Arbor. Starting from scratch with the Grand Rapids and Traverse Cities of the world and other ... And then I think it will continue to filter. And as we get people moving here, they will discover the Marquettes of the world. They will discover the New Buffalos. They will discover the Port Hurons, and all the other amazing areas, the Petoskeys, and everywhere else that makes Michigan great. It's not like we're going to break glass, pull switch, and suddenly the entire state's inundated with Millennials. It's just not going to happen.

And so I want some of those communities, like the rural communities are going to have to have a little patience with us. But I do think it will happen, particularly as these young professionals come here, and we continue to build out our broadband access. I'll just give you a really super quick side story. The governor and I went to Ontonagon, way up in the ... I love Ontonagon by the way. I'd like to retire there. And-

Is it in the UP? Is that where it is?

Yeah. All the way over to the west side of the state. So south of Houghton and Hancock. Beautiful. Right at the foothills of the Porcupine Mountains.


They have fiber right to the door. Every home, every business. Not just broadband. They got fiber. They got better fiber than some of our downstate communities.

And yet, they were talking about tourism, and is the mine going to reopen? And we might need to have our harbor dredged.

When the governor and I heard that they had this fiber to the door, we were like, "Do you realize what opportunities exist for business development here with that?" Because there are going to be people that want to work from their home, want to work in their pajamas, that in the IT and computer science and data analytics field, web development ... All these things can be done, and there are people that want to do that in communities like this and have Lake Superior to kayak on and the Porcupine's to ski and hike in-

It's all the good stuff of being off the grid, except you're not off the grid.

Yeah. And they just looked at us. And they said, "Really?" Yes. The opportunity will come, and so we need to continue to build infrastructure in our rural areas. The broadband access, or in the case of Ontonagon, promote the fiber that's right to the door.

Right, right.

So I just, I guess I want to preach a little patience for some of the communities, because if we don't even have Detroit properly positioned on a national level, we most certainly don't have the rural communities. And I don't say that as an indictment. I'm not brushing them off. Really, I'm not. I come from a rural community. This is a process.

One last question. We talked about STEM, STEAM, and college graduates. What about certification programs? What about those who would work in the fill in the gaps of the next generation of mobility. People, the installers, the technicians. The people who are going to care for the connected vehicle infrastructure, let's just say. Are they already here, or are they people we need to also continue to attract to the area, or what?

Yeah. Absolutely. And I think that's what the vast, the bulk of the Marshall Plan is really all about, is rethinking how education and employers build partnerships, collaborate, and innovate to change learning for both kids and adults here in the state of Michigan. I do think there are amazing opportunities as you said for that internal pipeline to be built better than it is today for those jobs. A lot of that is changing the perception of Michiganders now, because what they hear when you even ... Other professional trade, or certificate, or credential, is, "Okay, that's not a four-year degree. The only way you can be successful is a four-year degree, so those must be jobs for kids that aren't smart enough for a four-year degree." That is so wrong. These jobs are not for the faint of brain.


Probably the most aspirational part of the Marshall Plan is to change the conversation about these artificial divisions of time that we've just arbitrarily decided. All right, 13 years defines K-12. Two more years defines an associate. Two more defines a bachelor. Two more defines a master's. Those are arbitrary. It's really about mastering competencies and skills. The application of the knowledge that you get. That's what makes that piece of paper worthwhile, not seat time. And so again, this is probably the aspirational piece of the Marshall Plan, but how can some of the programs within the Marshall Plan start to change our educational mindset that you can start in a professional trade and follow a career ladder, and if you want a degree, even if you want a Ph.D., that opportunity exists. Because even if you have Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, with robotics and artificial intelligence and big data and advanced materials, to think that you're going to end with that seat time that got you your Ph.D. and you're done? You're not done.

Lifelong learning is going to define everyone from a welder to a doctorate. And that's the mindset we need to start all of us thinking about differently. And that's going to be hard. We already have so much work to do with our K12 system to make it better, this will though. We have so many graduates walking across the stage. Getting a piece of paper that says they can do x, y, and z, and when we as society find out that they can't, we're appalled. "Oh my God, how did this happen?" Well, it's not that hard. Bell rings, you change class. Year ends, you change grade. We don't care where you're at in your competency, you're moving on. How did we get to that point? That's how. We have a system that's failing the students.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add about all of the things that we've talked about or more?

We're not done doing. We've done some amazing things. The governor has done fantastic work the last eight years, and we want to showcase all this innovation and mobility, and what the universities have done, and how our cities have come back to be vibrant. But to finish that comeback and to take on the challenges that remain, we, as Michiganders, are going to have to be innovators. We're going to have to collaborate in ways that we haven't before. We're going to have to stop looking through partisan lenses, and break down silo walls, and do things for the betterment. To solve our infrastructure issue, and K-12, and transportation issues, we're going to have to be, status quo is going to have to be blown up. It's not going to work. And so that's where I tie back. I think a lot of us are very tired of studies and talk. It's time to do. And it's time to do with a lot of different partners. Maybe people that've never partnered before. That's how we truly transform Michigan.

And someone asked me, and I'll add this, and then I'll be quiet. Are we putting the cart before the horse? Trying to get talent when we still have these issues?

I said, "Look. We're crazy if we think there are 49 perfect states, and then Michigan." Every single state has its issues. Again, we're very close to our issues, so we know exactly what they are. And we're talking about them ad nauseum, but not every state is perfect. I mean, even the one that we think is the most perfect is not, and if you'd live there, they'd be dealing with issues.

So, I don't think trying to attract talent here is premature, because that talent can come in and help us innovate and create and solve these issues. And they're going to be invested in solving those issues, because they're going to fall in love with the state and want to be here.

How else are they going to be able to make their, you know, fix things and make-

And make their footprint.

Make the change. Exactly.

That's exactly how they're going to do it. They'll going to be like, "See Michigan now? I did that." Yeah. It's true.

Thank you. You're welcome!

You're welcome! Thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it. And you can have lunch now.

Now it's time for you to learn more about Choose Michigan. Look for this campaign to roll out this month. Catch up with other important mobility-related topics from the Mackinac Policy Conference at, and learn how the Detroit region leads the world in mobility. Don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter.

I'm Claire Charlton. See you again soon.

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