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Glenn Stevens Jr.: Stop rehashing ‘Blue Oval City,’ focus on keeping auto knowledge economy here

Crain’s Detroit Business
Oct. 24, 2021
Glenn Stevens Jr.

Let’s be honest, a major announcement of growth and investment for a hometown team like Ford Motor Company is good for Michigan.

But let’s also be real. An $11.4 billion investment and creation of 11,000 new jobs in Tennessee and Kentucky hurts, and it should be a whole lot more than a “wake-up” call.

We have already had a couple of those — think Amazon HQ and Rivian.

Ford’s announcement should spur our policy, business, and legislative leaders to develop a future-focused, data-driven strategy that will build on our assets, address our deficits, and increase Michigan’s competitiveness.

You either have the tools and talent to compete, or you don’t. A long, steady decline of a signature industry is not an option.

Shoring up our “tool kit” for business retention and attraction requires Michigan to build on our heritage of advanced manufacturing to secure our global leadership in next-generation mobility products.

However, we absolutely must leverage our leadership in manufacturing to expand into 21st century growth sectors by investing in Michiganders’ digital proficiencies and high-tech knowledge and skills.

Investing in talent, innovation, research, and design will allow Michigan to secure the jobs that are the future and expand our ability to be leaders in a variety of sectors.

Political partisanship needs to end, and the investment in attraction tools and talent must begin. Period.

Based on both metrics and what businesses report, competing for jobs in the Industry 4.0 factory of the future and the connected and electrified world of mobility requires a workforce well-versed in cutting-edge digital skills.

Developing and attracting talent will also allow Michigan to compete in the growth sectors of AI, fintech, UX design, data management, and information security.

It is not productive to rehash why Michigan wasn’t considered for “Blue Oval City” in Tennessee. There are myriad factors, and it is more important to analyze how we can position our state to compete for future investment more effectively.

Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel, once said, ”Don’t argue with the emotions, argue with the data. Measurement against a standard makes you think through why the results were what they were.”

So, what does the data tell us? Do we need better infrastructure, talent, training, site readiness, competitive incentives, or aggressive marketing? We may need all of these, but some are a higher priority than others in the long run.

When I walked in downtown Nashville in 1990, Tennessee was not the standard for economic development. It certainly is one now.

But so are Minneapolis, Idaho Falls, and Huntsville. Why? Because these communities and states offer a lifestyle, community, and incubator for the knowledge economy.

These communities are growing because they have a political and business leadership that embraces a strategic commitment to economic development by consistently investing in all forms of infrastructure and education.

They set the standard for developing and attracting talent and that will always be a winning differentiator.

In Tennessee, they now have almost a quarter-century of consistent business-driven leadership, commitment to education, and a relentless focus on business and talent by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Earlier this year, Oracle decided to invest $1.2 billion in a 65-acre technology campus on the riverfront in Nashville. This win represents 8,500 jobs in the software industry with an average salary of $110,000. That project will also support 12,000 indirect jobs and 21,000 construction jobs.

The average salary for an assembly line employee at Ford Louisville Truck is $62,868. A good living.

I still would have liked to have won a Ford battery plant. We need those jobs. But without question, I would like to win a new Oracle campus, have the corporate centers of Minneapolis, a downtown area plan like Denver, or a growing remote workforce embracing Pure Michigan.

The fact is that Michigan needs both types of investments that lead to a diversity of jobs.

There is simply no reason that Detroit, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, or Marquette cannot be the standard for great places to live, work and play in the advanced industry and knowledge economies.

We must give businesses more to like about our state.

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