What Whitmer said in Davos

Whitmer says America has done itself a disservice by focusing on college degrees

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently traveled to Davos, Switzerland, to speak at the 2023 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. There she participated in a Jan. 17 panel discussion on “The Return of Manufacturing.”

Twice during her remarks on the 45-minute panel, Whitmer said, “Government has an important role to play” in attracting manufacturing jobs. Officially, Whitmer was there to tout the manufacturing opportunities available in the manufacturing capital of America.

But a closer listen reveals that Whitmer has bought into the ideas of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which seeks to eliminate “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs from circulation. Those jobs have offered many a livelihood in Michigan.

An April 2019 World Economic Forum white paper called “A New Era of Manufacturing in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: $7 Billion of Possibilities Uncovered in Michigan” laid out the future Michigan is trying to consummate.

Last year, Michigan entered a $6 million public-private partnership with a Swiss nonprofit for a “U.S. Centre for Advanced Manufacturing,” with $3 million contributed by the state and another $3 million by Oakland County.

Among its solutions to “uncover possibilities” were cobots, or collaborative robots.

“Cobots (collaborative robots) bring $2.1 billion in value by improving workforce productivity and introducing efficiencies to the factory floor,” the white paper reads. “Cobots can handle the ‘dirty, dull and dangerous’ work, reducing accidents in the workplace and freeing up workers to focus on innovation.”

It adds that cobots can help “attract a younger generation to the manufacturing industry.”

On stage at Davos, Whitmer repeated this argument. She said that as industry becomes “leaner” — which is to say, it employs fewer workers — those with jobs will need to “upskill.”

Whitmer said:

We’re seeing this incredible growth, and as we look at the transition of advanced manufacturing, upskilling the current population so that as companies get leaner and more technological that there’s opportunity for people who’ve done the traditional mobility work to have jobs in these advanced, with an advanced set of skills... I think that there still is an outdated assumption about what manufacturing means, that it’s dirty and it’s physical, and in a way that isn’t really reflective of how things work nowadays.

Whitmer also verbalized a pivot in Michigan toward creating more career pathways for people without college degrees. For much of the 21st century, Michigan has tried to boost college enrollment, with mixed success.

“We’ve done ourselves, I think, a disservice in the United States, with a focus only on degree pathways into prosperity,” Whitmer said.

She added that our culture discourages, though inadvertently, “paths into the trades where you can make a really great living and be your own boss in a lot of respects, and make, you know, a healthy salary to raise a family. That’s really what it's all about at the end of the day.” 

Past Coverage of the World Economic Forum

Whitmer has worked her entire career in government, and twice said that government has a role to play in attracting manufacturing jobs.

“I think that with the Chips Act and the (Inflation Reduction Act) getting passed, we’re going to see onshoring of manufacturing from the whole value chain,” Whitmer said. “And we are doing a lot of that already in Michigan, from chips and semiconductors all the way to batteries to ultimately recycling.”

Whitmer said she wants to create a Michigan where “every person can find a path to this work.”

Whitmer continued: “I think government has a very important role and these opportunities are ways to bring people prosperity and create individual integrity and work and that’s what manufacturing has always been in Michigan.

“It created the middle class, but we can’t assume that that will always be the case.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.