They have hopes for careers that span all manner of interests and jobs, but unfortunately for Michigan, few young people appear to be considering the auto industry.
One day last month in Pontiac beneath the roof of a massive indoor soccer complex, key companies in the auto mobility sector worked to change that. Companies including General Motors Co., Faurecia and Federal Mogul pitched careers to 500 area high school students. Their messages highlighted a shift in focus from traditional jobs on the assembly line to the technology-based positions that require special skill sets.
“Today’s auto plant is not your grandpa’s auto plant,” Margaret Trimer-Hartley, president of Junior Achievement of Southeastern Michigan, told the crowd.
It’s a key fight for the region’s future, with Michigan battling Silicon Valley to become the hub for advancements in autonomous vehicles, connected cities and the technologies that will make them part of consumers’ everyday lives. At the heart of the struggle is competition for workers with the necessary computer and engineering backgrounds to make the promise of mobility technology a reality.
But it can be a tough sell to someone like 19-year-old Carlos Williams, whose grandfather once worked in a Ford plant. The Frederick Douglass Academy student wants to have his own construction company and said he’d never considered the auto industry. He describes his interest level as “not much... just a little bit... I really don’t know all that much about it.”
At one display, Faurecia’s Dan Vander Sluis tried generating interest by discussing challenges in designing the “cockpit of the future” for autonomous vehicles. Based in Auburn Hills, his company is a leader in the design of vehicle seats. If a trio of Mumford Academy students is any indication, he has his work cut out for him.
Each has a plan for the future, and the auto industry has never been in the running. Fourteen-year-old Lashyra Rembert wants to be a a baker. Sixteen-year-old Laniah Green wants to be an obstetrician and gynecologist. Fourteen-year-old Lorielle Benton wants to own a hair salon or run a pediatrician’s office.
But there are glimmers of hope here. “By them just showing me the science and math to it, it looks pretty interesting,” Benton said.
Glenn Stevens, executive director of MichAuto, a public private arm of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, knows the stakes involved for the industry and the state – and they are huge.
The auto industry in Michigan, he said, is valued at $57 billion annually. Globally, the industry is valued at $3 trillion. Projections for the shared-use/mobility sector are somewhere around $10 trillion.
“Our ability in Michigan to utilize our current place as an automotive leader... is absolutely an essential thing we all have to work on together,” he said. “The economic impact is huge, the jobs impact is huge and the technology impact is huge.”
Where is the talent?
High-tech jobs in the auto industry — with good salaries and opportunities for travel and advancement — are there for the taking for those with the right backgrounds.
For proof, look no further than Delphi Automotive, a leader in developing self-driving systems. In 2015, the Troy-based operation was home to 5,000 software engineers — roughly 1-in-4 of the company’s total engineers. By the start of 2017, that number had grown to 6,300.
Companies looking to add tech staff to move their mobility projects forward, however, face hurdles. A lack of qualified talent results from an education system without degree offerings that perfectly match the industry’s needs.
Last week, Oakland County officials released a consultant’s report on skills needed for the “connected mobility” arena, and the lack of those skills in the current workforce.
“We’re seeing an occupational identity crisis — the result of a rapidly developing industry,” said Kristina Arnone, vice president of EdEn Inc., an economic development consulting firm based in Rochester. “This identity crisis is causing significant confusion for educators, employers and job seekers.”
Universities offer degrees in electrical engineering, computer science or computer engineering, but none of those encompass all of the skills necessary in today’s mobility work, according to Mary Gustanksi, Delphi’s vice president of engineering and program management. Software engineering, she said, is a skill-set in great demand right now.
“We own the software in the vehicle,” she said. “This year, we’re shipping 50 billion lines of software a day in our manufacturing... So when you say that to a student who wants to write code, their eyes get real big.”
The job candidates just aren’t there right now, leading companies to crank up recruiting efforts and offer in-house training, internships, co-ops and apprenticeships. And, they raid competitors.
“Here at our Auburn Hills headquarters, I hired about 160 people last year,” said Michael Brosseau, president of Brose North America, developer of systems for autos that include that include automated steering and braking. “I’d say three-quarters of that number came from other companies. So, in a sense, we’re kind of just moving the same checkers around the board.”
Brosseau has pushed state and industry officials to address the talent shortage in Southeast Michigan. His work with Junior Achievement helped bring about last week’s recruiting event in Pontiac. At Brose, he has adopted his German parent-company’s use of an apprenticeship program to train new employees out of local community colleges in exchange for three years of work.
“We pay for their tuition, we pay them while they’re working and we give them a stipend while they are at school,” Brosseau said. “So in three years, they have no debt, they leave with an associate’s degree and a job.”
Battle with Silicon Valley
Image issues may represent the largest hurdles in Michigan’s drive to become center of the mobility universe. Companies here compete for talent with Silicon Valley, which pits Detroit and its suburbs against the San Francisco Bay area as a place to live.
New transportation players like Google and Tesla in California are pitted against more traditional contenders here like GM and Ford Motor Co.
To combat outsiders’ ideas of what living in Metro Detroit might be like, GM’s website includes a nearly three-minute video on its career page touting the city’s comeback.
“We are now in the middle of the greatest turnaround in urban history,” a narrator’s voice says. “So many tech companies are coming over. Are we the Silicon Valley of the Midwest? No. We are the Detroit of Detroit.”