Cool kids rule! (and they may save Detroit)

EastonHere is a brief excerpt from an article by Nina Easton for FORTUNE magazine. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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Attention young talent: Looking for a worthy cause to get behind? Motor City needs you.

Here’s a twist in our nation’s long-running saga of high unemployment rates: With the right education and training, young workers can call their own shots. These cool kids rule–even in a job market that (in their lingo) sucks.

I’m not just talking about those sought-after grads toting their Ivy League degrees to Wall Street or Silicon Valley. I was in Houston a few months back and met a pair of college seniors who had just pocketed six-figure job offers: Geology degree meets oil boom.

The latest Manpower survey shows a whopping 40% of U.S. employers complaining of a talent shortage. The hardest jobs to fill, as in past years, are skilled trades–a reminder that we sorely need vocational schools and community colleges more in sync with 21st-century employer demands.

Perhaps nowhere in America is that skills gap more painfully felt than in Michigan. Yes, Michigan–home to a bankrupt metropolis and the eighth-highest unemployment rate in the country. Already the auto industry says it has a growing need for workers trained in mechatronics–a field that combines mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering. It’s not unheard-of for a 23-year-old without a college degree to earn $90,000 and travel the world programming robots.

But Michigan is having trouble recruiting workers with the right vocational skills and college degrees. Detroit may churn out increasingly high-tech vehicles–portals on wheels, if you will–but young people see the “hot” careers elsewhere: the New York-Boston corridor, the Southeast, and the Bay Area, according to a new survey commissioned by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. Only 9% of young people outside Michigan would consider an automotive-related career. (Full disclosure: I served as a paid moderator at the chamber’s annual policy conference.)


Source: Detroit Regional Chamber

Not only that, but Detroit evokes words like “dead/declining,” “fragile/insecure,” and “unethical”–the latter a nod to the reputation hit the auto industry has suffered with the disclosures of deaths linked to delayed GM recalls. The state’s auto industry is also viewed as unfriendly to women –- GM’s appointment of Mary Barra as CEO notwithstanding -– and slow and stodgy toward pay and career advancement for everyone.

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Here’s a direct link to the complete article.

Nina Easton is FORTUNE‘s Washington columnist and senior editor, covering politics and economics in the nation’s capital for a readership of more than five million. She is a panelist on “Fox News Sunday” and “Special Report,” among other shows and provided prime-time commentary throughout the 2008 election. Easton is author of the acclaimed political history Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendancy, praised for its “inventive, exhaustive and entertaining” account of post-Reagan conservatism. She won numerous national awards as a Sunday Magazine writer for the Los Angeles Times and later served as deputy Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe. Easton is a California native and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of U.C. Berkeley.

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