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Posted on Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 2:05 p.m.

What Michigan can do to spur innovation in business and in workers

By Bill Wagner

Last month, together with other business leaders as well as state and federal officials, I participated in an invitation-only event on creating an education system that prepares our work force for the future.

We discussed concepts and questions around our education system, both for young people, and for those who are looking at adult education as a way to change careers, or further their current careers.

My conversations that day were framed by my opening statement that “we really want a work force that has a breadth of knowledge as well as a depth of knowledge. We have to promote how knowledge is applied in diverse fields.”

My perspective on education is firmly rooted in being a business owner: What type of education is needed for a long and successful career? What do businesses look for in a successful new employee? By considering these questions, Michigan policymakers can create a strong future.

The country, and especially Michigan, seem stuck in the mode of thinking of education as a means to a job, as a vocation. The problem with this attitude is that the hot jobs change frequently. Preparing people for one job, and one job only, creates a temporary and rigid work force.

What happens to those individuals who have prepared for nursing jobs when there’s a glut of trained nurses on the job market? Do they have the necessary core knowledge to adapt to other positions in the health care field? Can they grow new skills and new responsibilities? Or, have they been trained for just one position?

Deep knowledge of nursing got them that first job. Broad knowledge will let them adapt to new responsibilities.

This emphasis on preparing people for today's hot jobs also misses many opportunities.

A few years ago, the general consensus was that there was no future in software development jobs. Those jobs were thought to be all going overseas. The need for software talent has continually risen, and the profession was recently named the Best Job of 2011 by at least one website.

If you’ve experienced any kind of career growth, or enjoyed any success you know the answer: Your education must prepare you for a long career that meets constant changes in the job market, and supports your own growth.

The only constant during a life-long career is that you’ll need to adapt. The important question for our education system: Are you prepared for all the changes that may come in the future?

Scott Adams (yes, that Scott Adams, the author of "Dilbert") put the differences very well in an article on career advice. He said if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing. 2. Become very good (top 25 percent) at two or more things.

Very few people can be the absolute best at one thing. That space is for people like Joshua Bell, Phil Michelson, Steve Yzerman, Anders Hejlsberg or James Gosling. But anyone, with a good broad education and enough work, can reach the top 25 percent in several disciplines.

My business partner, Dianne Marsh, and I both have degrees in computer science from schools that are nationally recognized for that field. Complementing our deep technical knowledge is a broad enough education to become very good writers, public speakers and business owners.

Our deep knowledge of computer science gave us a successful start. Our broad knowledge of other disciplines enabled us to grow a successful business. Capitalism rewards those with rare skill sets. Combining skills in different disciplines gives someone a rare skill set.

Scott Adams explains how he became so successful:

"In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it."

In order to grow companies and our work force, our education system needs to prepare people for an ever-changing world. Preparing for today’s hot job is the road to irrelevance. Getting a broad, rich education that lays the foundation for becoming a triple threat is the path to a very successful career. We hire software developers that have deep knowledge of computer science and software engineering. But they must also have broad knowledge of other disciplines so that they can grow to accept new challenges as we continue to grow.

We’re trying to hire more skilled people every day. We need Michigan’s education system to lay the ground so that we have a work force full of "triple threats." It’s not enough to educate people for one job. We must educate them for lifelong successful careers. Careers that will demand diverse skills from every individual.

Bill Wagner is co-founder of SRT Solutions in Ann Arbor and a software blogger. He shares this column with co-founder Dianne Marsh.


David Briegel

Thu, Apr 21, 2011 : 4:38 a.m.

Yeah, that "free market" sure does work in China! The American Fortune 500, led by those fine upstanding Waltons, sure do love that central planning that provides all the child labor, slave labor, prison labor, plundering the natural resources and polluting the environment that Americans have come to "value". That is their "free market" vision for America. Of course, a few no bid contracts along the way to the "cheap labor" the billionaires require won't break any laws conveniently written by the "hired hands" at central planning! No problem there for any TeaPublicans. Only union busting and pension grabbing are important to the new "conservative" free marketeers! Frankly, it is the "pseudo-intellectual" right wing TeaPublican extremists that are telling us to buy their proven failure of an ideology! Trickle down, I can feel it but it's nowhere in sight!


Fri, Apr 22, 2011 : 8:15 p.m.

David, Don't bother, David. Every dog has his day and these are theirs. We've watched them play out over the past 30 years culminating (or so we thought) in the 2008 market collapse. I guess they are gonna let us all know how much worse they can make it. Snyder, Walker, et al and a soon-to-be repub/teabag government leading the way.


Thu, Apr 21, 2011 : 6:51 p.m.

huh? china decentralized, they are probably more capitalist than the U.S. . Incredible amounts of wealth have been generated creating a huge Chinese middle class. I guess I don't know what you want me to admit? I believe markets are more rationale than govt. dictates. If you have a problem with the use of oil,.... tax gas.... then let everybody figure out what the best most optimal solution is... it might not be hybrids or electric but those vehicles get credits so the market is distorted.

David Briegel

Thu, Apr 21, 2011 : 2:35 p.m.

Come on braggslaw, admit it is the dreaded "central planning" that is providing all the "requirements" I listed that is driving the "bargain". That is the real "vision for America's future". And it resembles nothing civilized! Their "corruption issues" are little different than ours though our cost might be greater. And do you think the goal of abolishing the EPA will provide the "free market incentives" to improve pollution in America?


Thu, Apr 21, 2011 : 10:56 a.m.

All I can say is that you are completely wrong about China. I have done work in China over the last decade. 400 million people have been pulled over the poverty line by capitalism. They also have no safety net and no unions (funny for a former communist country) I do not think China is doing everything the right way but they have improved the lot of their citizens. As it is still run by unelected officials you still have corruption issues, horrible pollution problems but they have gotten so much done in the last decade.

Basic Bob

Thu, Apr 21, 2011 : 2:50 a.m.

Self-promotion is a skill, but it is not a necessary skill for success. Not to be confused with social promotion, which is a reward for just showing up. Life is not like kindergarten, where everyone gets a trophy.

say it plain

Thu, Apr 21, 2011 : 12:28 a.m.

There are so many issues muddled together in this piece it's truly hard to do anything with the strands of it... I guess we need to all have that 'rare' skill set (hmm...), or at least talk that kind of game on the job interviews we need to be continually ready for. Yep, very different from those social democracies wherein something other than self-promotion works into lifestyle considerations.


Thu, Apr 21, 2011 : 12:16 a.m.

The idea is good, BUT that is not the republican way. They laugh at a liberal arts education. In Rick Snyder's world we have a large amount of trade schools which prepare people for very specific careers. As a hiring manager, I can train people to do the specifics of their job functions. I can give the ability to comprehend abstract thought and world-view thinking. I will gladly take a history major over a marketing major for a sales job many times over. Specific education should be for graduate level course work (doctor, lawyer, engineer)


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 11:10 p.m.

This "column" is basically (and tepidly) advocating a degree in the liberal arts followed by a master's in a specific field. Is that some new concept nobody in the education field had thought of before this guy had a brainstorm? Last I checked, college's had been pumping those people out for 300 years in the US. MUCH longer elsewhere.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 10:21 p.m.

I guess there is a flock of parrots


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 10 p.m.

Ah yes, the inevitable parroting of the "invisible hand of the free market" post. Always first and always the same commentary: "free market- good." "socialist government central planning- bad." "communist public school- left wing." "Poor people need vouchers." Nevermind that the Ayn Randian/Milton Friedmanette invisible hand of the free market nearly destroyed the world economy and had to be bailed out by the socialist taxpayers of several countries in order to be able to lavish massive bonuses on the free-marketeers who are now at it again. Makes one wonder if it's a real person doing it or some Snyderesque postbot.

John B.

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 7:40 p.m.

What is 'adaption?'


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 6:29 p.m.

clearly education but not the present public school monopoly. Give parents the right to choose, the biggest beneficiary of a voucher system will be the low income demographic which is trapped in failing schools like ypsi, willow run etc. Don't let govt. pick winners and losers. Markets are objective not subjective.... I don't want some left wing pseudo intellectual telling me how to run a business. Markets are not always perfect but they are surely better than govt. choosing what we all should do. I imagine some central planning majors from the former eastern bloc would disagree.