Michigan group courts homeland security to create jobs

In another move Michigan is making to diversify its struggling economy, a former state politician has launched a non-profit group aimed at attracting homeland security businesses.

The state has a storied history in supplying defense needs in times of national peril: During World War II, car manufacturers stopped making cars and built tanks and bombers. The famous Rosie the Riveter poster proclaiming "We Can Do It!" was modeled after a woman working at a plant in Ypsilanti.

With Michigan in need — it has the highest unemployment rate in the nation — Leslie Touma thinks there's opportunity in other areas of defense: cybersecurity, border monitoring and bioterrorism. They are sectors the state has the talent base to fill. What students graduating from its prestigious university programs need are places to get jobs.

Touma this week launched the Michigan Security Network, which will work to bring more security companies here, as well as coach auto suppliers on how to expand into the industry.

"We think the homeland security industry is a great opportunity for Michigan," says Touma, who has a background in both the automotive and defense industries and once ran for a congressional seat in Michigan. "This is a great opportunity to expand our leadership."

Michigan currently ranks 31st among states receiving homeland security money. Virginia, California and the District of Columbia are the top three.

The industry spends about $113 billion globally each year, with $60 billion of that spent in the U.S.

Touma says there are a lot of reasons Michigan makes sense for this sector: The state has the largest, most active international border with Canada, making it a great place to test new technology.

"We have water, we have bridges, and we have tunnels," she says. "We have everything you need" to test different security systems.

Expanding the industry in Michigan would bring high-skill jobs and create openings for graduates of the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State University, which all have programs in these areas.

"The truth is that we graduate a lot of wonderful software engineers in the state, and unfortunately, most of them leave," says Tom Kinnear, managing director of the University of Michigan's Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.

Still, it will do little to meet the needs of blue-collar workers laid off in the past few years, Kinnear says.

"The people being laid off are not qualified for those jobs," he says. "This is the new Michigan, and not a job-getter for the old Michigan. I live in the new Michigan, and quite frankly, it's already doing quite well."