A conversation with. James Epolito, President and CEO, Michigan Economic Development Corporation
"There has never been a more important time to have an educated work force than now, in the New Economy. Michigan is seven times more reliant on the automobile industry than the national average. We are in a transformation of our economy, losing jobs in the automobile sector, but making them up with high-tech diversification and advanced engineering."
A. As we look back, the biggest news of 2006 is the location of Google's AdWords sales and operations center in Ann Arbor - it will employ 1,000 people. In another great development, United Solar Ovonic, which is already based in Auburn Hills, is building a new ovonic solar-cell manufacturing facility in Greenville that will create up to 563 jobs within the next five years. Because of demand for their product, they have to build six additional plants. Once they looked at the site, they began creating two plants in Greenville and there's four more on the way. An alternative energy cluster is forming. In Hemlock, Hemlock Semiconductor had a $500 million investment in 2006, and expanded to almost double their production of polycrystalline ingots. We believe that other solar, wind and alternative energy interests and other suppliers will also lock in on these areas. This is at the precise "sweet spot" in our plans for future diversification.
Q. Michigan is often synonymous with vehicle production. How is that sector faring?
A. The demographics are changing. In Lansing, when we had the traditional GM plant work force, 75 percent of that work force was high-school educated and the remainder college educated and beyond. In Delta Township, the new GM plant is one-third the size as far as work force, but 80 percent of the work force has beyond a high-school education. The new plants are all high-tech operations, highly automated. There has never been a more important time to have an educated work force than now, in the New Economy. Michigan is seven times more reliant on the automobile industry than the national average. We are in a transformation of our economy, losing jobs in the automobile sector, but making them up with high-tech diversification and advanced engineering. Companies like Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, and Bosch have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to expand or locate their state-of-the-art tech and engineering centers here. Industries concentrating in robotics, pneumatics, sensor technology, anything related to R&D for automotive use, are growing. A great amount of development that was originally designed for automotive is spinning out and finding applications in other categories. But, we are still very much reliant on the automobile industry. People in Michigan have automotive in their DNA.
Q. What about incentives to attract new projects?
A. Governor Jennifer Granholm securitized the state's tobacco settlement dollars to provide $400 million for the 21St Century Jobs Fund, which is encouraging the development and commercialization of competitive-edge industries such as alternative energy, life and health sciences, homeland security/defense, and advanced manufacturing. About $135 million has already been awarded to 85 applicants that were passed through an independent peer-review process. The Venture Michigan Fund is investing $114 million dollars to focus on venture capital in Michigan.
Q. Do you have certain areas that attract a specific type of industry?
A. Grand Rapids is attracting the life and health sciences. Great innovation in advanced manufacturing is being seen at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, as well as throughout Washtenaw County. A high concentration of R&D firms is in Washtenaw County, and Oakland County and Detroit have advanced manufacturing and homeland security. The majority of industry in the Traverse City region is in advanced manufacturing.
Q. Are you encouraging foreign direct investment?
A. More than 1,500 companies from 30 countries choose to do business in Michigan. Our investment missions to Japan and Germany have resulted in more than $230 million in new investments and more than 1,100 new jobs for Michigan workers within the past seven years. Also, at least 14 companies opened world headquarters in Michigan last year. Our exports rose 5 1/2 percent in 2005, making us the fifth-largest exporting state to 191 markets worldwide.