It was my great pleasure to serve as a judge for the Business Journal’s 2013 40 Under Forty class. What an impressive group of nominees and winners! The future of West Michigan sure seems to be in good hands.
As we were going through write-ups of the nearly 140 nominees, what struck me was how many seemed to be in creative occupations and/or industries. That’s not consistent with the identity of a manufacturing-centered region. Nor is it consistent with the story that we are told repeatedly that jobs for college graduates are increasingly concentrated in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) occupations.
It sure seemed like a lot of the nominees worked neither for an employer that made things nor were in science- and math-based occupations. In fact, the nominees, at the undergraduate level, primarily have liberal arts degrees. Those are the kind of degrees that conventional wisdom increasingly predicts is a path to underemployment and wages too low to pay off so-called crushing student loans.
For this post I reviewed the published profiles of the winners. What I found is that in both occupations and industries, they provide a much better reflection of the realities of a 21st century economy than we get from far too many of our politicians, pundits and economic developers.
The 40 Under Forty nominees work, of course, in the private sector, but also for nonprofits and government. And they overwhelmingly work in the knowledge-based sectors of the economy: health care and social assistance; education; management of companies; professional services; finance and insurance; and information.
This concentration in knowledge-based services is a good sign for the West Michigan economy. These also are the fastest growing and highest wage sectors in the American economy today and almost certainly will be tomorrow. They are the sectors West Michigan needs to be more concentrated in if it is going to be prosperous in the future.
In terms of occupations, the 40 Under Forty nominees represent the broad diversity of opportunity in a 21st century economy. They also represent the continuing reality that the liberal arts remain a reliable path to success. Hardly any of these future leaders of the region work in STEM occupations.
Once again, this is a good omen for the future of the West Michigan economy. Successful regions are going to be those that are broadly diversified across all the knowledge-based services, rather than narrowly concentrated in a few industries. Certainly that is true for the two most prosperous Great Lakes regions: Chicago and Minneapolis.
Do the nation, state and region need more people with math and science expertise? Of course. But that doesn’t mean we need fewer people with the kind of skills developed by getting degrees in fields other than engineering and the sciences. The only way to build a broad knowledge-based economy is to have a large talent pool with the widest variety of skills in plentiful supply.
West Michigan currently has too small of a talent pool — it has one of the lowest college attainment rates of metros with populations of 1 million or more in the country. So it’s good that the next generation of West Michigan leaders represented by this year’s 40 Under Forty class chose to follow their own passion with degrees and occupations that are not those selected as the future winners by government or the so-called experts.
But it also is good for the future of metro Grand Rapids.
Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.