Universities a potential source for major job growth in Michigan

Universities a potential source for major job growth in Michigan
by Rick Haglund

During the past college football season, fans at Spartan Stadium wore T-shirts emblazoned with this cryptic message: "Bring FRIB to our crib."

No, FRIB isn't the nickname of some hotshot high school player Michigan State University's football team was trying to recruit.

FRIB stands for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a $550 million project that Michigan State was awarded by the Department of Energy on Dec. 11.

It sounds like something out of Star Trek. And in fact, it may take Michigan State researchers where no man has gone before--allowing them to potentially unlock mysteries of the universe and find cures for serious diseases.

FRIB is expected to bring 400 high-paying jobs and $1 billion worth of spinoff economic activity to the state, according to a study by the Anderson Economic Group.

Not to be outdone, the University of Michigan announced Dec. 18 it was spending $108 million to purchase the 174-acre Ann Arbor site vacated in 2007 by Pfizer Inc.
Courtesy Photo University of Michigan hopes to use the former Pfizer campus in Ann Arbor to create 2,000 research jobs.

U-M plans to use the 30-building complex to expand research in life sciences, creating 2,000 research-related jobs over the next 10 years.

That research could lead to dozens of new businesses and possibly thousands of new jobs.

"This is some of the best news we've had in the state," said Mike Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, which represents the state's 15 public universities.

Michigan State's FRIB and U-M's purchase are high-profile examples of how universities throughout Michigan are taking a prominent role in trying to rescue the state's troubled economy.

The universities were once largely uninterested in dirtying their hands by working with local governments and businesses to create jobs.

"That's changed--a lot," Boulus said. "Maybe we didn't have to play this role 15 or 20 years ago, when the auto industry provided so many jobs."

Today, every public university in the state can point to some initiative with business or government that has job creation as its focus.

The universities also are increasing the number of students they graduate -- up 6 percent between 2005 and 2007 -- boosting the quality of the state's labor force. And they're creating internships and other initiatives to keep graduates in Michigan.

Many universities, including Grand Valley State, Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan, are focusing on teaching students to become entrepreneurs and start businesses.

But there's much more to do, said Rob Fowler, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

For example, state government can work more closely with universities in capturing federal money to help small businesses grow, Fowler told me.

"I don't think as a state we've said we're going to be really good at that," he said.

With universities eager to do their part, now would be a good time.