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MSU's Webster navigates change at Prima Civitas


By Mark Bashore, WKAR



Changes are afoot at Lansing's Prima Civitas. Last week, the Michigan State University economic development group announced an expansion of its services statewide and a move to East Lansing. And a new CEO will navigate the transitions---long-time MSU administrator Steve Webster. WKAR's Mark Bashore spoke with Webster and first asked him whether the changes mean the organization is altering its mission or the kinds of projects it takes on.

STEVE WEBSTER: "That's actually the most important question: Is there a customer base? Is there a willing set of enterprises, communities, companies in Michigan that need, desire, are willing to procure the services of Prima Civitas?' And I think the answer is unequivocally yes. We've watched our governor, our newly elected governor, talk about his goals for the state, which is a state that---if I can summarize it---becomes young, smart and global. A state that regains its competitive edge in a global marketplace. He's talked about a metropolitan strategy. In other words, how do we rebuild our big metropolitan areas, which we are going to rely on as a state going forward. What's our rural strategy? How do we put back to work large numbers of people who find themselves dislocated with the recent economic downturn? All of those are the sweet spot of Prima Civitas 2.0. In addition, there are a number of communities and regions in Michigan that have approached Prima Civitas and asked if we, the Prima Civitqw staff, could help their region. But in each of these cases, you're going to find that it's a locally originated problem or an opportunity. Leaders in that community have decided it's time to act on those. And in that environment, an organization like PC can work to help them. So you've got to be willing to work. You've got to be willing to break down barriers and move forward in new ways. And it's only in those communities that PC will go and help them."

MARK BASHORE: "One of the nation's and Michigan's most challenging developments is municipal red ink. Will that impact Prima Civitas and if so, how?"

WEBSTER: "Yeah, it is unfortunate Mark that, across America, you're finding our great urban centers challenged right now. When you have a talent base that's anchored by Mayor-emeritus Dave Hollister, largely regarded as a collaborator, and Mike Brown, who has the record that he's got in the Flint and Genesee County area--again around shared services and government consolidation and visioning-- it's hard to imagine that Prima Civitas Foundation is not sought out for work in additional ways. We've listened to the governor most recently, talk about how revenue sharing across the state may be contingent upon a community's willingness to review shared services, leading perhaps to consolidation. That talent is scarce that knows how to do this in a collaborative way and I imagine that many of those communities will call upon PCF.

BASHORE: "Given that you're now offering services statewide without increasing your staffing, I can imagine that an economic developer or entrepreneur in mid-Michigan might now feel that Prima Civitas may be less of a resource or at least less available than previously with all this new territory. Will the organization be able to do its work as well in the future as you have in the past when you were more geographically focused?"

WEBSTER: "Taking on a larger geography to serve doesn't necessarily mean you have to take on a larger staff. The analogy I would give is this commercial we've seen over the years that says We're not the company that invented this particular product, we're the ones that improved it.' In much the way a research faculty member can double or triple the size of her laboratory on campus by simply adding research assistants---you don't need to increase the number of faculty that are running three labs now instead of one---you add the research assistants that allow for lab expansion. In the same way, the Prima Civitas Foundation will rely on the assets of other organizations to deliver the work. What is different about Prima Civitas is this: We will go into a region, work with different regional leaders and define the problem statement. The question then is Can the networks that Prima Civitas works with, respond?' So in other words, Prima Civitas doesn't necessarily have to hire those people or assets to come in and deliver the solution in a community, but (it) has to know where they are and connect those resources to the community. So it's easier to scale up. We will not be hiring new people every time a project comes on, but we will work with the community or the enterprise or the company that's seeking some Prima Civitas help, we will work with them to identify the assets and perhaps they bring them in as needed. And frankly a lot of the assets that are needed to help with these problem statements are already there in the community. PC just knows how to connect them and develop a shared vision and a solution to the problem statement that then can be worked on in that community with community-based resources. So we don't have to scale up. Moreover, we're first---and our title is "first city, first state"---we will first and foremost help our region if the region asks for it. We will then help the rest of the state. It isn't going to be an either/or' proposition, it'll be an and' proposition. We can help our region and other parts of the state, again by the collaborative talent base that we bring into a problem and into an area. So we can do both and we're going to do both. And if we have to get larger, we'll get larger based on a project and then get smaller as the project winds down, and grow again as another project grows someplace else and wind that back down."

BASHORE: "A key part of Prima Civitas' mission is leveraging college and university talent. Last month, a large-scale study claimed that many American colleges simply don't test students rigorously enough. Assuming there's at least some truth to the report, how much does that trend impact your mission at Prima Civitas and, coming from MSU as you do, generally how do you feel about the state of secondary education today? Are you concerned that college students aren't being tested rigorously enough to compete in the knowledge economy that you're trying to expand?"

WEBSTER: "Mark, it won't surprise you that my expertise is not in post-secondary testing and so on and so forth, but I will tell you this. The evidence is pretty clear: when an employer has an opportunity, they will hire a Michigan college or university graduate and they are largely very, very happy. That doesn't mean that some company or industry-specific training does not occur, but what we're lacking in Michigan now is not a skilled, passionate college graduate to fill the jobs. We're lacking the jobs that these skilled, passionate college graduates are looking for. And it's more often than not, the reason we can't retain them all in Michigan. When an employer comes to PCF, which happens regularly, they usually come from another state or another region and they're looking to grow. And their first question is can we find the skilled workers to fill the positions we have if we locate in your community?' And the answer is an unequivocal yes.' We work at Prima Civitas with the MSU Alumni Association. And through John Hill and his social media expertise John at the MSUAA is connected with 450,000 living alumni around the world, of just Michigan State University. They're in every corner of the world, doing all sorts of hard and important things. And we use those social media tools that John has to connect with those alumni and welcome them back. We give them very specific companies and jobs in those companies that are open and we connect them with the company and more often than not, they're ready to return to Michigan. It is important. Mark, I think for all of us, we want the best for our children as they grow up. And certainly what I wanted for mine was to get out and see the world, because it's a global place we've heard, and it'll be globally competitive, and then come back to Michigan to lead. That plays out in reality. So we're graduating high end, ready-to-compete students, certainly in the University Research Corridor schools of MSU, University of Michigan Ann Arbor and Wayne State. Most of the students that come out of our public universities are ready, willing and able to compete and to serve and to work in companies. We just need the job creation now to match it up and it's coming."

reWorking Michigan
For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan

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