When Capt. Chesley Sullenberger joins Jennifer Granholm in The War Room on May 22, he’ll discuss the qualities that allow leaders to make a difference in their communities. With permission, we have an excerpt from Sullenberger’s latest book, Making a Difference, which features a chapter on Granholm’s time as governor of Michigan.
Excerpted from MAKING A DIFFERENCE, reprinted with permission from William Morrow; Copyright © 2012 by Chesley B. Sullenberger III
Playing Defense and Offense
The predicament of Michigan’s jobless blue-collar workers, like those in Greenville, convinced Granholm that finding more jobs wasn’t the sole answer to her state’s economic crisis. The workforce had to be better trained and better educated if the state hoped to compete for more sophisticated manufacturing jobs.
“Michigan had one of the lowest percentages of adults with college degrees,” she told me. “For a hundred years we had this fabulous manufacturing history. People could go from high school to factory and have a great middle-class way of life.”
Granholm said that the only way to restore the state’s middle class was to play defense as well as offense. “When you have declining resources because the economy’s cratering, you have to call upon these citizens to diversify themselves, to diversify their own skills as we diversify the economy,” she said.
The governor faced a considerable challenge in asking the state’s blue-collar workers to go back to school after so many decades on the assembly line, I noted.
“Yes,” she said. “And so many people in Michigan had not gone to college because they hadn’t needed to. Imagine being that forty-eight-year-old guy or fifty-year-old guy, who has years of good work still ahead of him. Imagine his thoughts of going to college and sitting next to a twenty-year-old who just came out of high school. You know, that was a huge barrier for people to do that.”
In response to the need for a retrained workforce in her state, Governor Granholm’s team launched a bold program in which the state basically offered paid tuition for all displaced adult workers. The No Worker Left Behind program gave unemployed and underemployed residents the opportunity to attend community colleges and technical schools to receive training for jobs in new industries. “We had to completely revamp our adult education system to respond to those folks,” she told me. “Through No Worker Left Behind we ended up turning workforce training on its head.”
Her program offered ten thousand dollars in retraining to the first one hundred thousand displaced adult workers who applied. This example of creating opportunity in a crisis required some rewriting of the rule book. “We had to go to the federal government and ask for permission to do that while people were collecting unemployment, because nobody had any resources, right?” she said.
Granholm said that No Worker Left Behind was “wildly successful” because the state’s community colleges reconfigured their classes to serve the needs of those displaced workers willing to do whatever it took to find jobs. Classes were even offered in union halls and on site at new businesses. “They wanted to completely take away the stigma, mystique, or the terror associated with going to college for people who hadn’t been in school in thirty years and who might have tested in at third-grade math level because they just hadn’t used those skills in so many years. We wouldn’t pay for them to get a degree in French political science—because we don’t need that—but we would pay for them to get a degree in nursing, or to get a degree in something that was necessary in renewable energy.”
At the end of her tenure, No Worker Left Behind had enrolled more than 147,000 adults. “We had seventy-five percent of [unemployed workers] who either got promoted or got a job, and eighty-two percent were in the areas that they studied. That’s four times the national rate, which was fabulous. But then, after the recession hit and because of continuing budget deficits, my successor in office had to, unfortunately, close enrollment this year.”
The former governor said that the mood in her state has improved, but unemployment is still running high. A Gallup poll said that last year Michigan had the most improved economy of any state in the country. But in the fall of 2011, the state’s unemployment rate was 9.8 percent while the national average was 8.7.
Granholm also feels that she fell short of her goal to double the number of college graduates in her state. When she became governor, a poll found that only 27 percent of the parents in Michigan thought it was essential for their children to have a college education. By the time she left office eight years later, that percentage had grown to only 37 percent of parents.
“So we moved the needle by ten, but we should have moved it by thirty,” she said. “I said it everywhere we went that our goal—our big, hairy, audacious goal—was to double the number of college graduates. You have to get your child to go to college. Everywhere I went, I had the same message. Yet it was so difficult to penetrate, perhaps because people didn’t want to hear it. It’s a hard message to sink in.”
Granholm said she felt privileged to serve as leader of the state government, but she had hoped to do more for the people of Michigan. “You can’t declare victory, because it’s just not there yet,” she said. Yet the former governor acknowledged that one of her biggest mistakes was doing just that in an important speech. “One of the most public mistakes I made was to overreach in a State of the State speech. I was attempting to convey optimism about where the economy was headed. And in that speech, I said, ‘In five years, you’re going to be blown away by the strength of our economy.’”
This was in 2006, the year Granholm ran for reelection, and her opponents were delighted to use her optimistic words as a weapon against her when the economy tanked and Michigan’s automotive giants plunged into bankruptcy.
“It was such a dumb thing to say because of my over-enthusiasm about where things were going,” she said, noting that her advisers had cautioned her against being so optimistic about the economy.