Once again, it was my honor to serve as a judge to select the Business Journal’s 40 under Forty Class of 2016. Each year, it gets harder to select the winners. This year, there were more than 300 applicants. I always come away with a sense of how impressive and diverse young leadership is in West Michigan.
The applicants are diverse in terms of all of humanity’s varieties but also diverse in terms of industries and occupations. It’s that latter diversity I want to explore in this post.
The message from far too many policymakers and business leaders is if you have a four-year degree not in a STEM field, you are likely to be underemployed and in a job that doesn’t pay enough to pay off your student loans and enjoy a decent standard of living now or in the future — far better to skip a four-year degree and go into a skilled-trades occupation.
But if you look at the 40 under Forty winners of this and past years, you find a much different pattern. Most are working in non-STEM occupations and for non-STEM-based employers. Few, if any, are in the skilled trades. Rather than on a path to pauperdom, they are on a path to being prosperous and regional leaders. That broad mix of occupations and industries is good for their future and for the region’s.
This diversity is a reflection of what successful modern regional economies look like — concentrated in a broad variety of services. Some STEM based, most not, where the good-paying jobs are concentrated in professional and managerial occupations along with those who are business owners.
In addition to the 40 under Forty winners, the Business Journal also honored Amy Ruis as this year’s distinguished alumnus. The Journal described her as: “An entrepreneur, a pioneer of the Wealthy Street neighborhood business district — and purveyor of some of the classiest fare in town.”
Her career is reflective of what career success will look like more and more in the future. The Journal writes:
“Ruis received her B.A. in elementary education at Calvin College. She launched her career in 1992 as a manager and buyer at Haymarket Square, where she stayed five years before becoming a buyer at J Mollema & Son. Four years later, she opened Art of the Table, a specialty food, beverage and tabletop retail store.
“Ruis also is co-owner of Aperitivo, a Grand Rapids wine bar and retailer that offers imported and domestic cheeses, charcuterie, wine, beer and cider. Aperitivo opened in 2013 in the Downtown Market, 435 Ionia Ave. SW.
“Art of the Table, 606 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids, is known for its craft beverages, specialty foods and home and host products. Many city leaders and developers have noted the store’s role in rejuvenating Wealthy Street.”
Successful 40-year careers will increasingly go — both for those with and without degrees in STEM fields — to those who are good “rock climbers,” rather than “ladder climbers.” Those who are able to constantly spot opportunities in a constantly changing world and have the ability to take advantage of those opportunities will be successful. It’s far different than career success in the past, which was built around known and stable rungs of a career ladder.
Ruis’ career path is consistent with the story Daniel Pink tells in his book “A Whole New Mind.” The best book I have read on what jobs will be in demand for American workers in the future.
Pink helps us understand that globalization and technology are fundamentally changing the work that will be done in America. That left-brain skills are the easiest to automate and outsource — the big transformation will be from left brain to right brain work. As Pink illustrates, it’s not just low-skill work that can be automated or outsourced but also lots of high-skill, high-paying, rule-driven and routine work. New good-paying jobs increasingly will go to people who are creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.
Creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers are good descriptors of this year’s 40 under Forty class.
Metro Grand Rapids’ future economic success will be largely determined by whether its child development system, from birth through college, is designed to build these broad skills — rather than narrow occupational skills in a few hot fields — for all children growing up in the region.
Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.