Skip to main content

Editorial: Detroit economy depends on boosting talent


After two years of pandemic-disrupted learning, it’s no surprise that Michigan’s education attainment benchmarks are less than rosy. A new report from the Detroit Regional Chamber sheds light on what this state must do to boost talent and compete for jobs. 

And it starts with K-12 schools. 

The chamber's third annual State of Education report looked at college enrollment and high school graduation rates, among other metrics, to gauge how Michigan compares with other states. 

Jobs in the Detroit region — especially those in the increasingly high-tech automotive sector — are booming, but that could be short-lived if there isn’t a large enough talent pool ready to step into those careers. 

Most automotive jobs now require some form of higher education attainment, and that’s where Detroit is struggling the most. 

More: Detroit Chamber's State of Education report 'not a really great picture'

More: Editorial: New test scores fail to show full COVID impact

COVID lockdowns already had complicated workforce shortages in Michigan, as many workers have been slow to come back into the labor force. Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, says Michigan ranks 40th out of the 50 states for its labor force participation rate. 

Having fewer graduates will further complicate the picture. 

The report found enrollment in college and training programs post-high school had continued the declines that began even before the pandemic. Some of that is due to falling K-12 enrollment, and some is tied to COVID.

“The long-term COVID-19 impact on education threatens an already leaky talent pipeline where large numbers of students do not enroll in postsecondary education while far too many of those that do fail to graduate or earn a credential after six years," the report states.

Only 8% of Detroit high school graduates were academically prepared for college, according to the report, and consequently about 75% of Detroit students who started college hadn’t earned a degree in six years — or were no longer enrolled at all. 

The Detroit Public Schools Community District kept students out of the classroom for most of the 2020-21 school year, and even as recently as January, schools were closed to in-person learning for the entire month

Way too many students didn’t log on from home, and the district battled 70% chronic absenteeism while classes were virtual. So the negative academic impacts are only starting to reveal themselves. 

Expect the graduation rate to get even worse in the coming years. In 2020, the rate for Detroit high school students had fallen to 72% from 75% in 2018, considerably less than the 85% average for the 11-county Detroit region. 

Other studies, including a thorough one by Michigan State University earlier this year, have shown students who were kept out of the classroom the longest during the pandemic, fared the worst. Black and economically-disadvantaged students fell the furthest behind. 

To boost college attainment and the robust workforce the Detroit region needs the emphasis must first be on ensuring students are getting a good education during their K-12 years. 

Michigan schools are now flush with $6 billion in federal COVID aid. All of that funding should be directed to helping students get caught up and ready for their futures. Our economy depends on it.