How URC is building talent-generating capacity, designed to propel Michigan’s economy

Successful economic development helps create thriving cities. Connecting students and the world of academia, world-class research, and the workforce is crucial. The University Research Corridor (URC), an alliance of three leading research institutions (Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University), is working to help shape the landscape of Michigan's economic development. 

Richard Florida University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida teaches classes in the Rotman School of Management and School of Cities, the leading business school in Canada. Originally from a working-class family in Newark, N.J., Florida witnessed his hometown’s urban decline. This first-hand perspective led to an interest in cities. Since the early 1980s, Florida has been a part of the city planning industry. 

Today, the educator, author, urbanist, speaker, and consultant works closely with universities, cities, and stakeholders to aid in one common goal: to build better, more vibrant, sustainable cities. During his work with Glenn Stevens and Mich Auto focusing on the role of universities in producing talent, he was introduced to the important work the URC is known for. This work is also highlighted in his new report, Michigan’s Great Inflection: A Strategy for the Age of Technology and Talent, released May 2023. 

His report was a big topic of discussion at the 2023 Mackinac Policy Conference, where leaders, policymakers, business executives, and urbanists examine the state’s economy. Part of that conversation discussed college towns, placemaking, and collaborations which can catalyze shifts in the economic landscape. 

“I think there’s an infrastructure of economic development change in Michigan that’s quite potent, and I’m happy to have helped a little bit to catalyze that or give it an additional spark,” Florida says.

Within his report, Florida discusses how Michigan is at a historical inflection point, having led the world in automotive production, and now, facing a crossroads. While the heydays of fossil fuels and mechanical vehicles might be moving past us, the interest and energy surrounding electric vehicles, and a highly advanced mobility industry, is buzzing. This “once-in-a-lifetime transformation is both an enormous opportunity and an existential challenge for the state,” Florida says.

“To ensure the long-run prosperity of its industries, communities, and people, Michigan must focus its economic development strategy on bolstering and aligning the capabilities of its leading corporations, universities, and startups in critical transformational technologies. As importantly, if not more so, the state must enhance its strategies for generating, retaining, and attracting the talent required to compete in this new economic environment,” he says.

Michigan’s URC is an incubator to much of that talent, with 150,000 enrolled students, nearly 110,000 undergraduates, and 45,000 graduate students – developing more talent than world-class academic clusters like Boston-Cambridge, the San Francisco Bay Area, or the North Carolina Research Triangle.

This year’s Mackinac Policy Conference was particularly energetic for Florida, who has attended the event for many years.

“The state of Michigan has realized that this is a ‘do or die’ moment with this economic and technological transformation of the automotive industry and related industries,” he says.

Florida says the work being done in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and college towns across the state can be used as a blueprint for other cities’ economic growth and revitalization. His report helps crystallize much of the potential of tech, knowledge, and innovation hubs across Michigan and its cities.

“For Michigan to become a true knowledge economy, or to make this transition, the college towns like East Lansing, Ann Arbor, and many others, have to become more like Austin or Columbus,” he says. “If you look at where tech hubs have grown up in the U.S., it’s almost always in a college town. It was Palo Alto in Stanford that stimulated the growth of the Bay Area, and led to the further growth of San Francisco … One insight is that the college towns not only have to be part of the system, they have to grow bigger and grow into real tech hubs.”

Florida says the URC’s work helps symbolize how critical research universities are to the future economy. 

“What’s so interesting about Michigan is that it has great big companies, which are important, but it also has this platform of universities, communities, and placemaking,” Florida says. “If you ask me what I’ve learned from the URC, it’s that these research universities are the critical nexus of the knowledge economy. Michigan has all the ingredients, it just needs to put them together a little better.”

Maureen Krauss (Photo Supplied)Maureen Krauss is the president and CEO of Detroit Regional Partnership, an economic and development organization that represents the city of Detroit and the 11 counties surrounding it. The organization aims to market, grow, and support the region by doing domestic and international business to bring new jobs to the area. Krauss says their partnership with the URC has been an integral asset in furthering that mission.

“It is somewhat unusual for a state to have three such amazing research universities in a cluster of activity,” she says. “The URC has been a critical partner for us, in that we can leverage all of the assets it provides, in research, business connections, and talent, to help us do our work in growing the economy in Michigan.”

Of course, retaining college graduates within the state is always an important topic, one that Florida’s report also focuses on. 

“Michigan does a wonderful job of retaining talent,” he says. “Michigan ranks seventh in the country for retention of graduates in two and four-year institutions. It’s a myth that all these people are leaving the state, but Michigan is not attracting young people from other states.”

Florida says many Michiganders remain in their home state for post-secondary education and for their business startups, leading to impressive retention rates across the state.

“A lot of people grow up in Michigan and are attached to the place,” he says. “They might come from ethnic or immigrant families, people feel attached to their community, they don’t want to leave, so they stick around. However, Michigan is not attracting anywhere near enough of talent from elsewhere — it's very much lagging. It’s not retention that matters, but rather, attraction.”

Krauss says the conversation should not be an either/or when it comes to talent retention and attraction. 

“Whether it’s talent or businesses, retention has to be the foundation, followed by attraction,” she says. It’s not an either/or, we have to focus on both,” she says. “Every day, we talk to the business community that is already here, as well as the business community that is looking to invest in our area.”

When it comes to attracting new businesses or projects, the talent pipeline is key, says Krauss. 

“When you think of a company that is making a 20- to 40-year investment in your community, it is super important that they know that the talent is coming, too, and that there is a commitment to continue to produce that talent.”

In order to retain critical talent in specific categories needed for the economic transformation, the state needs to develop a strategy and act on it, says Florida. This strategy relays the importance and impact of college towns. 

“I taught at Carnegie Mellon University for nearly 20 years, and my book, The Rise of the Creative Class, came out of my conversations with students who said they didn’t want to stay in Pittsburgh after graduation — they wanted to go to a place like Austin. It wasn’t New York, San Francisco, Boston, or Chicago. These were young computer scientists, electrical engineers, and other technical talent, for many of which, at their stage of life, those were big, daunting places. They liked the environment of a big, exciting college town with interesting companies to work for.”

Creating a strong sense of community and place is crucial to persuade graduates to stay and make a difference in these cities. 

“If they’re coming out of the University of Michigan, excited by what they’re doing there, and there are more opportunities for them in Ann Arbor, they’d be more likely to stay,” Florida says. “The biggest thing is that if you want to attract these young people, when they’re graduating programs, the state and universities better have a focus on placemaking.”

As it likely shifts to its next chapter, Krauss hopes the future of Michigan’s economy can be a largely collaborative one.

“With the great support of URC, we put together an EDA Build Back Better proposal for the Global Epicenter of Mobility (GEM). It was one of 21 that was accepted in the country, so that brought $52 million to the region to help in the transition from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles and beyond. Mobility is much bigger than just cars.”

“It’s our moment in time to ensure that our talent and supply chain can keep up with this transition,” she says. “It’s the talent pipeline, as well as the research and the innovation that can be spun off from our universities, that is going to drive Michigan into the future. Those assets are authentically here — we don’t have to invent or create them. We just need to leverage our strengths and collaborate when the opportunities present themselves.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.