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Tune in to WBEZ, Michigan Radio or WCPN Ideastream to hear our call-in show “Hidden Assets,” hosted by WBEZ’s Steve Edwards.

And join us right here for a live web chat about how immigrants can help the Midwest economy.

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GE Adds Jobs, Faces Protestors: General Electric said Tuesday it is adding 300 jobs in Van Buren Township, Mich., at an advanced engineering center that it announced in 2009. That’s on top of 850 jobs for which the company is still hiring. But GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt faced protests at a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. Members of the 99% Spring movement are planning to protest Immelt’s pay and other issues at GE’s annual shareholders meeting, which will be held in Detroit on Wednesday. Read our coverage of the 99% Spring here

Nobel Laureates In Chicago: Former presidents, activists and actors are in Chicago for a three day meeting of the world’s Nobel Laureates. It’s one of the high-profile efforts by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to stake Chicago’s claim as a world-class city. On Monday, students in a Chicago classroom got a visit from former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, one of many visits paid by the laureates to Chicago schools.

Obama Campaign Blankets Ohio: The president was just at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio last week, talking about job retraining. Now, Barack Obama’s campaign plans to blanket the state in coming weeks, with the auto bailout as a main topic. Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, says the number of auto workers in Ohio has increased from 105,000 to 120,000 since the administration rescued General Motors and Chrysler. However, Ohio’s biggest automotive employer is Honda, which has announced a series of new investments in the state.

Changing Gears Live Tomorrow: Make sure to mark your calendars tomorrow for a Changing Gears live call-in show and chat. It’s at 3 pm ET/2 pm CT. Read more here.

The city of Detroit, which recently reached a deal for the state to oversee its finances, is

Photo submitted by Nathan Barnes

proposing a budget that  cuts more than 2,500 jobs in an effort to reduce its annual expenses by  $250 million.

The Detroit Free Press says the 2,500 layoffs would be on top of 1,000 job cuts Mayor Dave Bing sought earlier.

The proposed budget, laid out for city council’s review, also calls for the Detroit Department of Transportation, the city’s troubled bus system, to be privatized. It would transfer operations of the city’s lighting department to an independent authority.

Many homeowners have complained about broken street lights and problems with Detroit’s power grid, which is separate from the rest of the area.

Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is set to speak about the city’s future today. 


Throughout the past two years, Changing Gears has looked at the role that newcomers play in the Midwest. On Wednesday, we’ll be talking about them — and talking with you. 

Join us at 3 pm ET/2 pm CT for “Hidden Assets,” a call-in show airing on WBEZ Chicago, Michigan Radio and ideastream Cleveland. We’ll also be holding a live chat here at

WBEZ’s Steve Edwards will host with a variety of scheduled guests, including Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder. They’ll be looking at ways the Midwest is trying to attract immigrants, and how they can be a competitive business advantage for our region.

“Hidden Assets” welcomes your participation, on the air and here.

Former Detroiter Alex Ozark on the Hyundai-Kia proving grounds in California / Credit: Charla Bear

Many of us have friends or family members that have moved away from the Midwest.

In the Changing Gears special “Where Did Everybody Go?” we’re talking with some of those people who have moved out of the region – asking them why they left, what they found, and if they’ll ever come back.

We also take a look at what their departure means for the region.

You can listen to some of those stories here.

Part I: What’s So Great About Austin? Plenty, According To Former Midwesterners

Part II: The Appeal Of Portland

Part III: Detroit Coney Dogs On The Sunset Strip

Part IV: A Generation Moves Off The Farm

You can listen to the hour long Changing Gears special “Where Did Everybody Go” Sunday, 9 pm ET, on Michigan Radio; Monday, 10 am CT, on WBEZ Chicago; or Tuesday, 8 pm, on ideastream Cleveland.

Cameron Close, Joseph Bersuder, and Marcus Grimm all landed well-paying engineering jobs.

It’s a mantra among politicians and CEOs across the Midwest and the country: we need to graduate more engineers in order to stay competitive in the world economy. It’s pitched as a way to create jobs and innovation. But all that might be wrong.

Joseph Bersuder, Marcus Grimm, and Cameron Close are days away from starting their engineering careers. The three are graduating from the University of Akron and hearing them talk, it’s almost like: “what economic crisis?”

Bersuder is going to work at a company constructing wastewater treatment plants. Grimm took a position with BP in Houston. And, Close accepted a job at a local green energy startup.

The money’s not bad either. From salaries in the $50,000 range to Grimm’s “Upper 70s, with five-figure signing bonus.”

To many politicians and CEOs, these guys are just what America needs.

President Obama has made it a major policy.

“We’re announcing an all hands on deck strategy to train 10,000 new American engineers each year,” he said last year at an advanced lighting company.

The conventional wisdom is that more engineers will lead to more innovation and help create the so-called jobs of tomorrow. But when Hal Salzman heard that from the President, he had a very different reaction: disbelief.

Salzman is a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He’s been looking at the job market for engineers for years now, and he says despite all the fears out there of a shortage, and falling behind other countries, the US graduates plenty of engineers each year—more than are hired. And, of course, not all of them want to work directly in the field. So, why work so hard to create more?

“What are these engineers going to do?” he said. “If you produce more engineers, and we’re only hiring now maybe 50-60% of the engineers who graduate each year, where are they going to go? What kind of jobs? Are they supposed to sit around and wait until the economy improves?”

Salzman says hoping more engineers would help the economy is kind of like saying building more cars would help the auto industry. Instead, he says, the market does a pretty good job in this field. For instance, an oil boom in recent years has increased demand for petroleum engineers.

“The response is just what you’d expect out of Econ 101, which is: salaries went up and almost immediately the number of graduates increased,” Salzman said.

Salzman doesn’t disagree that engineering can be a good job, and he says graduates landing lots of jobs is exactly what we want. In recent years, the unemployment rate among engineers is about half the national average. But adding 10,000 more to the pool, he says, could make it harder to find work, and drive down wages. Already, many of the best and brightest students are attracted to higher-paid Wall Street or consulting careers.

What about the idea that America needs more engineers to compete globally? Salzman doesn’t buy that either. He says only a small percentage of engineers are involved in anything that could be as classified innovation. Most are building things like bridges or roads.

“Last I looked, those were not sectors that are booming,” he said.

At the same time, much of the engineering we do need is being outsourced. Even large portions of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge were designed and built in China and shipped to the US.

But Charles Vest thinks this this view is short sighted. For years, he was President of MIT. Today, he heads the National Academy of Engineering. He says we can’t predict the inventions that will create demand for engineers down the line, like the computer revolution did a generation ago.

“I don’t know that increasing the production of engineers tomorrow is going to immediately help turn the economy around,” Vest said. “But I do think it will orient our talent base to the kinds of jobs that are going to be there in the future and the people who will create those jobs.”

And, back in Akron, Joseph Bersuder, Marcus Grimm, and Cameron Close, the three engineering students, say they and their peers found plenty of offers in engineering.

“At the end of my job search, I probably turned away six or seven interviews,” Close said.

The question is, if we had more engineers, like the President and so many advocate, would that still be the case?


Vacancy is easy to see, hard to quantify

DETROIT – Forty square miles.  That’s how much of Detroit lies vacant, nearly a third of the city.  You could fit Miami or San Francisco inside all that emptiness.  At least, that’s what we’ve heard for years.  The thing is, it might not be true.

This is a story about a number – an estimate, really – and how it became a fact illustrating Detroit’s decline. I’ve read about 40 square miles in the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and The Washington Times. I’ve heard it on Fox and I’ve said it on the radio. That’s why Margaret Dewar called me out.

“Wait, this can’t be true.”

Dewar is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. She thinks there’s tons of vacant land in Detroit. Just not 40 square miles, dramatic as it sounds.

“It’s too good a number to let go of,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful number, it’s so shocking.”

It makes the 139 square mile city sound so empty: an abandoned city. It’s true a million residents have left Detroit. But now, some people who’ve been using 40 square miles are rethinking the number.

So let’s rewind to early last year. That’s when I heard city official Karla Henderson speak at a public meeting of the Detroit Works Project, tasked with reimaging the city. She talked about opportunity, but she also quantified the challenge:

“Forty square miles of vacant land. So vacant land area is overwhelming for the city of Detroit,” she said. “The size and population of San Francisco would fit into the current vacant land in the city of Detroit.”

The message from Detroit last year. Screenshot/Detroit Works Project presentation

The statistics were stark. Some residents there were already anxious about the fate of their neighborhoods and their homes.

Last week I asked Henderson to revisit the vacant land numbers.

“You’ve been hearing recently 40 square miles,” she said. “We estimate there’s about 37 square miles.  I do want to put a caveat on that, that that does include our parks.”

Parks like Belle Isle and Rouge Park. By this estimate, seven square miles of parks are counted as vacant land. Plus two square miles of cemeteries. That’s nine square miles of caveats.

Karla Henderson now oversees part of the Detroit Works Project and she acknowledges this distinction got “lost in the message.”

Dan Kinkead is part of the Detroit Works technical planning team. He’s an architect and urban designer with Hamilton Anderson Associates. Kinkead says 25 is a good number to describe the city’s vacant land. That includes 19 square miles of purely empty land, five square miles of land with vacant residential structures, and another square mile of underutilized industrial land. No parks.

It’s similar to what geo-spatial analyst Rob Linn found over at Data Driven Detroit.

“My figure is 21.39 square miles,” he said. “Just a hair over half of the 40 square mile figure.”

Which is a departure, because his boss has been citing 40 square miles for years.

Around here, demographer Kurt Metzger is known as the data guru. In 2009, his group did an important residential survey; everyone still uses its data today. Teams drove the city block by block, literally counting every house and residential lot.

They found about a third were vacant or had structures that needed to be torn down.

Metzger figured if a third of residential properties were vacant, it confirmed this idea that 30-35% of the city was too (more or less 40 square miles). The idea was already out there. But where did it come from?

“I have no idea,” Kurt Metzger told me last week. “There are a lot of numbers that we keep pushing back on, but I don’t know where that original number came from.”

While Detroit is largely residential, the new figures adjust for commercial and industrial property. Another problem with the conventional wisdom is that 30% of the city is roads: sweeping boulevards, streets, alleys, and a massive freeway system. So there’s less buildable land than is often conveyed.

Still, not everyone buys into 20 square miles of vacant land.

“In my own experience driving around, it just seems like a lot more than that,” said John Gallagher, a veteran reporter at the Detroit Free Press.

Gallagher often uses 40 square miles in his stories about land use. He says it’s reasonable given the population decline, the industrial decline, the housing survey, and the sometimes staggering return to nature.

“There’s a phrase from Willa Cather’s book My Ántonia, ‘stifled by vegetation,’” he said. “And sometimes in the height of summer, when you drive down these streets with no homes, and the trees and the weeds and the tall grass, that’s how I feel sometimes.”

In Detroit, thousands of buildings are slated for demolition. So whatever the number, the city’s vacant land is a huge challenge. If it doesn’t add up to the size of San Francisco, looks like it’s still as big as Manhattan.

Back in February, we gave you a heads up about the tough fight shaping up in Indiana for veteran U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar.

Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar

He has not had a primary opponent since he first won election in 1976, and he’s been one of the most prominent Republicans in the Senate, leading the Foreign Relations Committee and serving as an advisor to numerous presidents.

But Lugar is being challenged by the state’s treasurer, Richard E. Mourdock, amid criticism from Tea Party members over his record. He’s also been embroiled in controversy over exactly where he lives.

Now, as a primary election approaches next month, his battle to keep his seat is getting even more intense.

Monica Davey in The New York Times takes a look at the race today. She reports that the Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll showed Lugar leading Mourdock by 42 percent to 35 percent among likely primary voters. That is within the poll’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus five points.


Credit: flickr user _chrisUK

Innovation is a tricky thing to track. Everyone talks about it, but it’s almost impossible to predict where it will happen, or what it will be. But you know it when you see it.

And so it is with a new invention out of Case Western University. A group of five undergraduate students at the Cleveland school have come up with a potentially brilliant solution to a nagging problem. They’ve built a better pothole patch.

They’ve done it with something called a non-Newtonian fluid. Without getting too technical, a non-Newtonian fluid is a material that acts like a liquid in some situations, and a solid in others – like the ketchup that stays stubbornly stiff when you shake the bottle, but pours out evenly when you coax it with a butter knife.

Another example is a mixture of cornstarch and water, which appears to be a liquid, but acts like a solid if you run across it. If you’ve never seen how this works, it’s pretty incredible.

The Case Western students took this principle, and applied it to potholes.

They’ve put a mixture of their own non-Newtonian fluid in a Kevlar-like bag, and dropped it into a few potholes around Cleveland to test it out. When a car drives quickly over the bag, it reacts as a solid.

It’s meant to be a temporary fix. But still, it’s pretty impressive:

The students have already won a $9,000 prize to develop the idea, and other investors are interested. And Cleveland’s service director told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he’d like to meet with the students.

Inventions like this are the reason you hear so many people involved in economic development talk about innovation. If the idea works, it could be a successful business that lowers costs for cities and makes driving safer. No one could have predicted that a group of 20 year olds working on a class project in Cleveland would be the ones to solve this kind of problem.

But when innovation is part of the culture, when there are places and people that encourage the pursuit of new ideas, new ideas will form. The more that happens, the more likely it is that innovation will strike.

Where will it strike next?

The Pew Center on the States checked all 50 states to find out which ones are evaluating their tax incentive programs. Credit: Pew Center on the States.

Tax incentives have become the weapon of choice among states battling for new business investments. Niala Boodhoo reported in December that offering incentives has become a sort of strategy game for Midwest states hoping to one-up each other as everyone fights to grow jobs. But, as Niala reported, these are games with millions of dollars in tax breaks and thousands of jobs on the line.

Now, the Pew Center on the States is taking a look at incentives from a different angle. The Pew Center tried to figure out whether anyone is actually checking to see whether the incentives are worth it.

Turns out, a lot of states do very little follow-up once they approve incentives programs.

From the Pew Center’s release on the study:

States that have conducted rigorous evaluations of some incentives virtually ignore others, or evaluate infrequently. Others regularly examine these investments, but not thoroughly enough.

Michigan and Wisconsin are both called out for heavily scrutinizing incentives for the film industry, while ignoring other incentive programs:

Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico and Wisconsin have studied their film tax credits in recent years but have not reviewed other types of incentives in the same detail.

Michigan made news when Governor Rick Snyder announced the state would get out of the incentives game, and focus instead on helping small startups. But Michigan still has some incentives programs. It’s just not evaluating them rigorously, according to the Pew Center.

Indiana and Illinois fare even worse in the study. Both are listed among the 26 states the Pew Center says are “Trailing Behind.” According to the study, both states “did not publish a document between 2007 and 2011that evaluated the effectiveness of a tax incentive.”

So, none of the tax incentive programs in Indiana and Illinois have been evaluated, according to the Pew Center.

The Associated Press says Illinois, in particular, has drastically increased its tax incentives. It made headlines last year by offering $330 million to keep Sears and two financial exchanges from leaving the state.

But Illinois officials defended their policies to the AP:

Marcelyn Love, a spokeswoman for Illinois’ Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, defended the agency’s evaluation process. She said companies applying for tax breaks through Illinois’ primary incentives program have to have an outside audit showing they created the promised jobs before they receive the credit. The program, called EDGE, is only for companies threatening to leave the state.

The Pew Center report focuses not on individual awards, but on incentives programs as a whole. The researchers looked for any sign that the states have stopped and evaluated their programs, and whether those evaluations actually had an effect on policy.

By those criteria, a few Midwest states did well in the report. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri were all listed as “Leading the Way” on tax incentive evaluations.

Iowa is listed as one of only four states in the country that have fully integrated those evaluations into the policy-making process. What that means is there’s actually something called the Iowa Legislative Tax Committee. The committee is relatively new, but its job is to review all of the state’s tax incentives every five years, and report those findings to state legislators so they can decide whether to change the programs.

According to the Pew Center:

“The more time legislators spend understanding how these things work, the better,” says state Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D), co-chair of the committee. “If we know how they work, we’ll make better decisions.”

Sounds like a worthy goal.

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