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State’s new auto talent program aimed at students

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday announced a talent initiative for the auto industry called “We Run on Brainpower” with the goal of attracting and retaining Michigan students and residents to work in the auto industry.

Snyder made the announcement during the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars, an annual conference with industry insiders, declaring talent as the industry’s top priority. Snyder said it’s both a quality and quantity issue.

“We need more young people in particular, but people from many backgrounds, interested in actually going into the automotive industry,” he said. “Because in many respects, we have a marketing issue. When you go through tough times and a lot of people were hesitant to say, ‘Do you want to go into the auto industry,’ when you saw the down cycle and all the difficult times.

“We need to be louder and prouder and more proactive to get young people excited about getting in this field.”

Gov. Rick Snyder checks out a Ford Mustang.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. is heading the initiative that aims to raise awareness of high-tech careers available in the auto industry and showcase the state’s leadership in the industry. It handed out brain-shaped stress balls with a Pure Michigan logo and program’s name. Snyder encouraged the auto industry to get involved.

The state said perceptions about the auto industry must change to attract top talent. A 2014 MICHAuto study said just 41 percent of those who influence career decisions — parents of 12- to 17-year-olds, leaders of youth organizations, high school and college educators, career and academic advisers — were likely to recommend a career in the auto industry.

Kevin Kerrigan, senior vice president of the MEDC’s automotive office, said the state wants to let people know about the talent pool here in Michigan and attract more talent to Michigan. He said the program, which it has been working on for the past year, will have a focus on kindergarten through high-schoolers, he said.

“There’s a perception in the auto industry that this is the Rust Belt,” Kerrigan said. “It’s very far from that today.”

Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry & Labor Group for the Center for Automotive Research, said the state needs an influx of talent and new people. Companies have identified talent as a problem; 80 percent of auto industry employers surveyed by the center recently said they had difficulty finding talent.

“Changing the perceptions of jobs in the auto industry is a big job,” she said. “It’s long been needed.”

Snyder met with a group of more than 30 students attending the conference. He said part of the message will be changing parents’ perceptions.

“A lot of parents have seen the automotive cycle happen two to three times, sometimes personally, but other times they’ve had friends, neighbors or relatives who went through the difficult days,” he said. “In some cases they can sort of discourage their kids.”

A year ago at the conference, Snyder talked about a similar need to grow talent and connect young people with careers in manufacturing.

Last year, Snyder created a new state department, the Department of Talent and Economic Development, to help address the need for high-tech and high-skill workers in Michigan. He called for automakers and suppliers to help students understand what skilled trades jobs are and how they can be applied in the auto industry.

In February, the state announced the Community College Skilled Trades Equipment Program to close the talent gap and meet demand from companies needing to fill the good-paying jobs. Eighteen community colleges were slated to receive $50 million in grants for equipment and training for technical fields.

Snyder showed a “Pure Michigan” branded video that included lots of clips from the auto industry of designers, engineers and of vehicles in development. It drew loud applause. The video won’t run as a commercial but it will be shared on social media.

The “We Run on Brainpower” program will use real stories of auto industry employees who are helping create vehicles of the future. The MEDC worked with partners such as Ford Motor Co., Visteon Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. to create “A Day in the Life” video series. The series will highlight Michigan’s auto engineers; Detroit-based supplier American Axle is among suppliers and automakers who plan to participate.

The state has created a website, www.werunonbrainpower.org, where the the videos, stories and content from third parties that showcase industry talent and innovation will be posted.

murden@detroitnews.com