Jeff Mason took over in mid July as CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. after eight years of running the University Research Corridor, a coalition of the state’s top three research universities including Michigan State, Wayne State and the University of Michigan. According to Mason, talent remains the top issue for the MEDC, particularly as the state’s economy continues to grow.
As the new year approaches, what’s the biggest economic development opportunity for Michigan in 2018?
One of the biggest projects certainly that is out there is the Amazon second headquarters. As you would expect, going into 2018, they’re going to make some decision, probably in early 2018, in terms of what’s going to happen.
Both Grand Rapids and Detroit submitted proposals to Amazon. If Michigan does not land that project, do both areas still have something to gain out of competing for it?
Absolutely. I think the positives from that process are a couple of things. One, just the notion and the effort of everybody rallying around and working together. The governor talks about ‘relentless positive action,’ but what the project and what the proposals and the effort show is we really are much more collaborative and cohesive in terms of working together — and not only regionally, but across the state. The other piece is that it really helps to focus attention to the talent challenge and opportunity that we face. The governor’s talked about having a Marshall Plan for talent. This project really helped to focus a spotlight into needing to double down on the issue of the talent pipeline. Obviously we’re still bullish and optimistic that Michigan is going to be the location, but if not, there’s a lot of positives to take away from this effort.
How do you maintain that spirit of collaboration and cooperation and build on it?
Just like with relationships, you have to work at it every day. I talk with our team at the MEDC that economic development is a team sport. We can’t have a top-down mentality here. We really have to be out working in our communities and the region — and across the state — to understand what those challenges are and how to help those communities and regions to grow and to be successful.
We have built some strong partnerships around the state and you keep working at it, and you get better and the trust builds up. We have some great partners around the state that are excited when even other regions of the state get projects and succeed. They are excited even for their friends to be successful. The competition isn’t really within our borders. It really is nationally and globally.
What’s the biggest challenge in 2018?
The talent issue will continue to be a big challenge for us and an opportunity. If we can come up with some solutions for having skilled workers available to help our companies in their growth strategies, we can create a competitive advantage over other states and regions of the country. That’s the biggest challenge for us going into 2018, to help continue to accelerate the growth of that pipeline.
Whether it’s career and technical education, certificate programs, associate degrees, bachelor degrees or advanced degrees, we need more skilled workers across the board. To the extent that we can crack the code on how to solve that and start to grow more within the state and attract more into the state, that’s our biggest challenge.
How do you see Michigan’s economy holding up in 2018?
We’re pretty bullish on what the economy looks like in 2018. The U-M report and all of the economists that have started to make projections suggest that it’s going to be a pretty solid year for Michigan. We have a lot of tailwinds right now in terms of the economy in Michigan, and now is the time to strike while the iron’s hot.
2018 is an election year in Michigan. How do you navigate the MEDC through the rhetoric once the campaigns kick into high gear?
Simply by staying the course. I talk about the fact that economic development should be an apolitical activity. I think everybody would agree that we want the economy to grow, we want vibrant communities where people are excited to live and work. Good jobs and a good economy are something everybody can agree on, no matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican. We just go about doing our business and focus on our goals and our metrics and leave the rest to resolve itself.
What’s a prediction you have for 2018?
The Spartans are going to win the national basketball championship. And you’ll see some autonomous vehicles driving in Michigan in 2018.