After weeks of anticipation, the winners of the Future of Work in the Midwest paper competition were announced this Tuesday, May 26. The competition was hosted by the Center for Social Solutions during the winter 2020 semester and invited proposals from U-M students about the current state of labor in the Midwest.

“The idea for the contest stemmed from wanting to engage students and researchers in other departments and centers on campus to ultimately help with growing our network of partnerships and solution-driven conversations within the U-M community,” said CSS research associate Julie Arbit, who helped develop the competition as part of the CSS research team.

Proposals were evaluated by a panel of experts over the course of several weeks. Ultimately, Urban Planning and Public Policy student Christopher LeFlore and Public Policy master’s candidate Nick Najor tied for top graduate proposal, while Economics and Cognitive Science major Meiru Chen and Ross School of Business student Katherine Yang won top undergraduate proposal.

The winning proposals covered a wide range of issues related to employment in the Midwest. Leflore, whose proposal addresses the potential impacts of employer-provided transportation in southeast Michigan, was inspired by his own background and identity.

“First and foremost, the Midwest is home. My family moved from the South to Detroit because of work. Now many of the opportunities that were available during my grandfather's time have changed. Despite these changes, we continue to redefine ourselves,” LeFlore reflected.  

“Transportation policy has become my passion because of the diverse upbringing I was fortunate to enjoy. I saw how different my access to opportunity was simply based on one's geographic location. Increasing transportation access allows more people to move not only between different locations, but social classes as well.”

Najor’s proposal similarly focused on southeast Michigan and construction careers in Detroit specifically. His ideas were influenced by his involvement in the Practical Community Learning Project at the Ford School of Public Policy, where he worked with City of Detroit construction outreach manager Renard Richmond to analyze how construction career pathways can improve housing outcomes. Najor was also inspired by his class with Dr. Earl Lewis, which he says deepened his understanding of connections between building trades and the history of racism.

“Because large-scale construction is so often dependent on government intervention and public contracting, it offers a policy lever to increase racial equity,” Najor said.

Chen and Yang also drew inspiration from their coursework when crafting their proposal “The Four E’s in Empowering the Future of Work in the Midwest,” which takes an in-depth look at the combined effects of educational innovation, employers, and public policy. Their interest in the topic stemmed from theU-M School of Information class about “Opportunity in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” taught by Dr. Walt Borland.  

 “One general idea I got from this class is that there is a sea of nonexistent professions that are yet beyond our wildest imaginations. So I think I’ve had an itching almost, to find out some clues to the transition process. What will extinguish, stay or come into being? I guess that’s the question I hoped I’d be clearer about after writing this paper,” Chen explained.

 After reflecting on their classwork and having conversations with their class instructors, Chen and Yang pieced together many interconnected factors related to the future of work in the Midwest.

“Although rather abstract and theoretical in application, one of the most exciting moments was coming up with our ‘4 E’s’ equation,” Yang said. “Having grown up in Michigan, one thing I always found interesting was the variety of industries that play a prominent role in the Midwest. I think an interesting experience in writing this paper was not only going in-depth into specific industries, but also finding commonalities between the labor forces of each.”

Overall, the winning proposals did a thorough job of addressing key issues regarding the future of work in the Midwest and offered many unique solutions. By sparking discussion on these critical topics, the winners advocated for the importance of having the future of work be a part of national conversations.

“The future of work is a huge uncertainty with widespread impacts. Discussing this topic is important because it addresses the question of what to do when change occurs. As the world is constantly changing, and some might argue at an exponentially increasing speed due to technology, naturally it is embracing uncertainty and actively trying to create solutions that will help best prepare us for the inevitable shift,” Yang stated.

The winners also recognized the intersection of the future of work with other other key social issues of diversity and equity.

“We have a segregated society, where certain people have opportunities in abundance, and others do not. Our society is changing rapidly, and whether our future will be more or less equitable is still in question. We have the potential as a society to make sure everyone is provided for, and that everyone can have dignity in their work, and the ability to pursue their passions,” LeFlore said.

Going forward, the center is excited to continue in its mission of finding human-centric solutions related to the future of work and hopes to host similar competitions for its other initiatives in the future.