MACKINAC ISLAND (WWJ) — Despite innovative partnerships between businesses and the educational systems, there remains a skills gap for many Michigan employers, with beginning employees not coming to the workplace with basic skills employers have  a right to expect.

That was the word from the panel on “Closing The Gap: 21st Century Jobs and Education” Thursday afternoon at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

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When it came to electric line technicians for Novi-based ITC Holdings Corp., the nation’s largest independent owner of electric transmission lines, CEO Joseph Welch said their requirement worked out to Algebra II. And Welch said he was “appalled” when many potential employees “didn’t have those skills. And these are not low-paying jobs.”

William Parfet, CEO and president of MPI Reserach, a contract pharmaceutical research firm in West Michigan’s Mattawan, said his company “got very active” with the schools from which it hires its laboratory techs — Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

“We started with Western, taking students back to their departments and department heads, and they re-lived what they wish they had been taught when they were at Western,” Parfet said. “It was very successful. We’ve also done that with KVCC. Some of our senior scientists are now adjunct professors there.”

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Welch lamented that most of the electric transmission assets his company bought were 45 years old, so by definition, the people expert in maintaining it were old, too. He said ITC has had to train its own work force.

Panelist Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College, observed that many of the skills most in demand at workplaces these days boil down to project management skills. He said those skills should be backed into K-12 education and internships.

Welch lamented the high school emphasis on sports, and said FIRST Robotics does a great job of bringing that kind of excitement to science and engineering competitions.

WWJ Newsradio 950′s Roberta Jasina, Tom Jordan, Vickie Thomas and Charlie Langton are on Mackinac Island covering the conference. Stay tuned for live broadcasts, Thursday and Friday.

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