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A Lesson in How to Partner With Higher Ed to Create Manufacturing Growth

A scrappy community-college system in metro Detroit is redefining its relationship with local businesses by adopting a “demand-driven” model that attempts to supply employers’ pressing needs for skilled engineering, technical and manufacturing workers instead of simply educating, training and turning out graduates with an obtuse aim that benefits neither them nor the economy.

They offer a good example of how other manufacturers can work with their local colleges to teach skills that meet their own specific needs.

CEOs and chiefs of automakers, suppliers and a range of other industrial and service employers in the area have been flocking to support the fledgling new approach being taken by Macomb Community College under President James Jacobs. And two big national financial companies— JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs—are helping out by funding separate new initiatives for fostering local entrepreneurship and business ownership along with the multi-campus school located in Macomb County, northeast of Detroit.

“How the college trained and educated human capital had to take a different tack by looking at the demand side.”

Jacobs became president of Macomb in 2008 just as Detroit’s entire industrial infrastructure was being shaken out by the Great Recession and the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler. “Those jobs weren’t coming back,” he observed. “That means how the college always trained and educated human capital had to take a different tack by looking at the demand side. How could we stimulate the economy and job growth in the community?”

The answer was manifold. Jacobs got JPMorgan Chase—which several months earlier had committed to major investments in metro Detroit—to direct $1 million of their financial commitment to a new $2.7-million Innovation Fund, which will provide bridge funding to Detroit-area entrepreneurs and next-stage companies with high growth potential. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs had committed to help small, local service businesses via Macomb. The college founded its own Center for Entrepreneurial Growth to help students and staff start up.

And Jacobs managed to get designation as the only community college in Michigan to be involved in the new American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Institute being organized by the federal government and headquartered regionally at the University of Michigan and Ohio State University.

Overall through these initiatives, Macomb’s goals include fostering development of software and big-data applications for a range of industrial IT needs, including automotive “infotainment” and connectivity, as well as coming up with innovations for big local defense contractors such as tank manufacturer General Dynamics. The efforts will include grants and loans of up to $100,000 and involve some funding by the college itself, going to qualifying students, faculty members and Macomb College alumni who have promising ideas.

“One of our biggest considerations will be: Are there opportunities for the companies we help to provide local employment?” Jacobs said. “That’s not usually a factor high on the list of venture capitalists’ investment attributes.”

In concentrating without apology on boosting the local manufacturing base—but in a much more tightly integrated way like Macomb—Jacobs predicted, “community colleges will evolve from being standalone institutions that created skilled people to those that respond to the needs of industry, to collaborating with others to create economic growth.”


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