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State's new labor agency chief: 'organized labor helped build the middle class'

Date Posted: March 20 2020

LANSING - The Whitmer Administration obviously thinks "labor" and "economic opportunity" can complement each other.

That's because both terms appear in the name of same state agency that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reorganized and reformulated last year in her first year in office. 

"We've established a new department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, bringing back Labor into the department," said the guy who's heading the new agency, Director Jeff Donofrio. "We want to make sure that we have the right tone and that we're making sure that we're doing the things that are going to help organized labor in the State of Michigan, because organized labor helped build the middle class."

Speaking on March 4 to delegates of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's 61st Legislative Conference, Donofrio gave a shout out to his deputy, Sean Egan, an IBEW Local 275 member (see related article), while reiterating Egan's assertion that the new 2,600-employee department's mission is primarily to help workers.

Donofrio was picked for the position by Whitmer while he was working as the executive director of workforce development for the City of Detroit. 

"When the governor created this department in August she brought together the labor, workforce economic development, and housing functions of state government," Donofrio told delegates. "Those are all pointed at trying to do the same things, making Michigan a more competitive state. But more importantly than that, I think the previous administration's idea of what a more competitive state looked like was trying to help business. 

"We're trying to help people. We believe the success of this state is going to be in our people: in the income that they have, in the growing of the middle class. And that's a shift that we've tried to make."

Whitmer's vision for the department, Donofrio said, is to continue to the workforce development work he was doing in Detroit. "The governor came calling and said all those things you built in Detroit, we want to make those a model," Whitmer said. "The partnerships that you built with unions, we want that statewide. The work that you're doing to enhance CTE (career and technical education), we want that statewide."

While serving business might not be the primary mission of the new agency, applying business principles and metrics to its operations is certainly part of how it will operate. Donofrio said Michigan's household income was about average among the states during the last century "because of the strong organized labor presence we had here in Michigan, particularly the jobs that didn't need an education beyond high school."

But Michigan's single state recession that began in 2001, and then the Great Recession later that decade, firmly planted our state in the bottom third among the states in measuring household income. While income growth has overall grown marginally for the nation's workers during this past decade, 60 percent of Michigan's households have actually lost ground when it comes to income, Donofrio said.

There are a number of "headwinds" to progress in the state identified by Donofrio that are keeping open the "skills gap" - which is leaving thousands of jobs unfilled in the state because workers don't have the proper training, transportation, housing or job seeking skills. 

He said one solution is devoting more of the state's budget to education. Another idea involves closer links between union trade schools and high schools in an attempt to more closely match skills with training. Another is devoting more money to infrastructure in the state - fixing the damn roads. 

"We looked around the country," Donofrio said, "and we said, if income is what we want to drive up, and we care about people, what's associated with driving income up? The biggest indicator across the country is education."

For much of the past century, Michigan's residents could get a middle class life with a high school education by working in the trades or in an auto plant, or in other manufacturing facilities.  

He said today, 45.5 percent of adults in Michigan have some sort of training beyond high school that has resulted in an apprenticeship, journeyman card, a certificate, or degree. But that number, he said, needs to rise to 60 percent just to keep pace with other states. 

"Tennessee was about 6 percent behind us in terms of educational achievement, they're now only 2 percent back," Donofrio said. "And in a state like Kentucky - the South is generally seen as a less educated place than the Midwest and Michigan - Kentucky is now a more educated state than Michigan today. They surpassed us in the past few years. So let that sink in, and let that sink in about what our future is if we don't change that dynamic."