The recent Techonomy conference on the campus of Wayne State University was not much different than last year’s event, the first of its kind here in the Motor City. Tech leaders and business icons from around the country converged on Detroit for a series of conversations and workshops discussing how technology and innovation can boost American economic growth, job creation and urban revival.
This year’s conference emphasized the national challenge of inadequate and inequitable education. Speakers discussed the role of entrepreneurs and industry, as well as how technology can be creatively applied to help revive America’s physical and social urban infrastructure, to reignite competitiveness and economic growth.
The majority of the speakers were under age 45 and so it is noteworthy that one of the Detroit Jewish community’s major philanthropists and a world-renowned business leader was one of the panelists. Among the prominent speakers at Techonomy, such as Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, Quicken CEO Dan Gilbert and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (@onetoughnerd), was Joel Tauber.
Tauber, founder of Tauber Enterprises, has been involved in Jewish philanthropy for more than five decades, serving as president of the Jewish Federation, chairman of the United Jewish Communities and vice chairman of the United Jewish Appeal Young Leadership Cabinet. At the University of Michigan, he created the Tauber Institute for Global Operations, which was why he was included at the event.
Joining Nolan Finley, editorial page editor and columnist for the Detroit News, Felix Ortiz, the founder, chairman and chief product officer at Viridis Learning Inc., and Carol Williams, executive vice president of Dow Manufacturing & Engineering, Tauber’s panel was titled “Where Are the Jobs?” and was moderated by Susan Lund of the McKinsey Global Institute.
The premise of Tauber’s panel was that many jobs are being created in Detroit through the technology boom, but many unemployed Detroiters are not qualified for these jobs — a skills mismatch. As Finley put it, “We could get 5,000 of these high-tech jobs and drop them in Detroit tomorrow, and it’s not going to have a major impact on Detroit unemployment because Detroiters aren’t prepared for those jobs.”
Despite having pneumonia during Techonomy, Tauber was one of the more interesting speakers at the conference. I had the chance to talk with him afterward and learn how he was inspired by the conference and believes that Detroit can learn a lot about job creation in the technology field from Israel. We spoke about Detroit’s financial struggles, how becoming a technology hub will impact the Downtown sector and his assessment of our educational system.
Q: As you said, your 50 years of experience are from the basic smokestack industry and not high-tech, but how do you see Detroit’s tech industry turning the beleaguered city around?
Tauber: I have an understanding of manufacturing. You can come up with all the high-tech you want, but you need infrastructure to make it happen. We have to change our education system. And if we’re seriously going to have employees that can support technology, we have to begin to teach differently.
For the worker, we have to turn from words to action because there are solutions out there in technical schools. In Europe, the technical schools do quite well. College education is revered here in America whereas technical education is well regarded in Europe. In the U.S., high school kids either go to college or nothing. They’re great candidates for technical schools. The Tauber Institute at U-M combines engineering and business, offering a master’s program. We’ve had 1,000 graduates in the first 20 years of the program. The things taught there are what the Internet economy needs.
These are the kinds of students you want. One hundred percent of the students in our program get employed with six-figure salaries. The Tauber Institute should be a model for other universities. Only MIT and Northwestern offers such programs.
Q: You’ve been very involved in Israel’s business community. After Gov. Snyder’s recent mission to the region, how do you see potential trade relations affecting Detroit’s economy?
Tauber: I saw the transition in Israel firsthand. They became the third-largest contributor to technology in the world. I’m an investor in several high-tech startups in Israel, and it amazes me. Before the economic downfall, there were two or three Israeli high-tech companies that moved to Michigan to manufacture close to the auto industry. Detroit is a fertile area for Gov. Snyder and Israeli industries to strengthen our local economy.
Israel has great ideas; however, what they develop can’t be used in Israel — not enough people there. They have to bring it to the U.S. or Europe. Snyder’s going there might give Michigan first choice with some of these high-tech and bio-medical companies. Other relationships could develop here in Detroit that could expand the ideas that come out of Israel. The country’s so full of ideas it’s unbelievable. There’s unlimited opportunity.
Q: Will Detroit recover and how long will it take?
Tauber: I was here when Detroit was great. I used to go Downtown all the time by streetcar. And then I watched it decline. It’s very depressing. Then the auto industry went down and our city went from 2 million people to 700,000, and that eventually took us to bankruptcy. It was very difficult to put the city in bankruptcy, but it had to be done if we’re going to climb out of it and become a fine city again.
I’m thrilled to see the kind of things happening — I love what the entrepreneurs are doing Downtown. They’re doing a fantastic job. Today, all throughout the city you see vibrancy… I hope that the entrepreneurs don’t lose interest and that their capital holds out. This is not a three-, five-, or 10-year change around. The kind of change I see is going to take 20 years, and we will once again become an exciting city. The elements are occurring now and bankruptcy was part of that. Now it’s time for a new beginning.
Q: What inspired you at Techonomy?
Tauber: Just walking the conference was electric. People were excited. Six hundred interesting people with great ideas and a lot of cross fertilization. I was at the dinner the night before for the speakers, and the meeting and mentoring was terrific. What goes on outside the meetings is more important than the actual sessions — that’s where the relationships are developed. You could feel the buzz in the halls. I said, “This is Detroit?”
Listen to Joel Tauber’s session at Techonomy Detroit.