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Sept. 3, 2013

MSU center fuels economic innovation in Michigan

An MSU-led center formed two years ago to stimulate economic growth in Michigan is attacking key issues such as a lack of skilled workers and limited access to technology in rural areas.

The MSU EDA University Center for Regional Economic Innovation is a fast-growing “virtual network” of business leaders, entrepreneurs and scholars. The REI network’s more than 700 members participate in online discussion and forums designed to find new ways to help Michigan better compete in the global economy.

The center recently hosted the statewide Innovate Michigan! Summit Sept. 4 at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center. It brought together economic developers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, investors, scholars, students, community leaders and others to share in recent ideas, tools, models and policies for bolstering Michigan’s economic growth.

Rex LaMore said the network’s enhanced communication and cooperation has been helpful for improving Michigan’s economic progress. LaMore directs both REI and MSU’s Center for Community and Economic Development.

“It’s a neat model, and it really works,” LaMore said. “With the virtual network, I think we’re getting more creative ideas.”

Two current areas of focus are the skills gap in Michigan and the state’s lack of digital literacy.

A skills gap refers to a difference between the number and quality of applicable skills workers have compared to the skill set businesses expect of their work force.

LaMore said one cause of the skills gap may be low salaries.

“Manufacturers in industries say they’re not able to attract skilled and talented workers,” LaMore said. “We looked at models in Germany and Canada for comparison. The research suggests part of the problem is they’re not paying workers well and there’s no loyalty.”

Similarly, LaMore said a lack of digital literacy has hindered Michigan’s economic growth. Digital literacy refers to both the access a workforce has to the internet and the competency of workers to put internet access to use.

“Michigan has limited access to the technology in isolated rural areas,” LaMore said.

“Small businesses particularly are not web savvy,” he added. “Many of them don’t know how to market themselves and manage businesses online.”

Many REI programs for economic development incorporate students from universities across Michigan.

Examples of student programs include improving infrastructure in Flint, strengthening the tourism industry in Frankfurt and commercializing the Upper Peninsula by focusing on technology companies.

LaMore said student perspectives have been valuable additions to REI’s cause.

“Students are more likely to take on innovative, riskier ideas,” LaMore said. “If you’re able to connect the innovation to practitioners, I think you get the best of both worlds.

REI will meet on Sept. 4 for the second annual “Innovate Michigan! Summit.” The group will assess the success of their programs from the past year as it continues to attempt to build Michigan’s economic future.

“The challenge is figuring out how we invent our way to prosperity,” LaMore said. “We’re trying to find the tools and strategies to help Michigan have the best and brightest possible economic process.”