Motor City grows as tech talent hub

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

As Detroit’s century-old automotive industry reckons with fast-paced advancements in technology, the Motor City’s talent pool is shifting to favor tech workers.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution ranks the Detroit area at No. 4 in a list of the country’s hubs for advanced industry employment. Nearly 15 percent of the workforce in the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn area works in advanced industries such as research and development, and engineering. The city is outranked only by the Silicon Valley region, including San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara; greater Seattle; and Wichita, Kansas, which made the list because of technology’s outsize presence in a relatively small workforce.

A two-year program at Washtenaw Community College trains students such as Zach Van Buren, 27, in advanced manufacturing, automotive testing and development.

“All of the fastest-growing occupations in the automotive industry are digital,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings’ metropolitan policy program. “Detroit is accumulating a concentration of that, maybe not at the level of Silicon Valley, but the region is at least competitive.”

A town that used to be known for welding sparks and steel stamping is now vying with sunny Silicon Valley for technology’s best and brightest, as automakers look to recruit software engineers, coders, app developers and even hackers to help them build the cars of the future. What Detroit lacks in sun and warm temperatures, it makes up for in the complex problems facing its marquee industry.

“These workers are motivated by cool, challenging problems, and new mobility is one of the greatest kinds of use cases in tech today,” Muro said.

General Motors Co. acquired Silicon Valley self-driving start-up Cruise Automation in 2016. It has grown that mainly California-based workforce by roughly 1,110 since the acquisition — including recruits from Uber, Netflix and Google, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said at an investor event in November. That’s expected to grow by another 900 this year.

Then there’s GM’s 62-year-old Warren Technical Center, which has long been the automaker’s engineering hub and is one of the sites where GM tests driverless technology. It’s possible the Cruise AV, GM’s production-ready self-driving car, will be built at the Orion Assembly plant in Orion Township where the test vehicles are already manufactured. GM has not publicly spoken about production plans as it waits for federal approval of the autonomous vehicle built without a steering wheel or a gas pedal.

WCC’s Advanced Transportation Center partners with the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti.

GM CEO Mary Barra said the company is working hard to leverage the technical talent it already has.

“The amount of talent that we’ve brought in across all areas — whether it’s our innovation centers in Atlanta or Austin or in Markham, Canada, (or) the resources that we have in Israel, in Silicon Valley — we’re tapping into technical talent around the globe and then have networked it together, and I think it makes us really well positioned to deliver that mobility,” Barra said during a Q&A at the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston last week. “There’s a lot of tech jobs right now that are not filled because we just don’t have the talent, and there’s already a war on talent and it’s only going to increase.”

Ford has hired about 3,000 salaried employees in the U.S. annually over the last few years, 80 percent of whom are in technical positions like software engineering and information technology. Ford says a majority of its tech talent is based in southeast Michigan. The automaker is investing $200 million in its Flat Rock Assembly plant to expand production of self-driving cars. It is relocating its business teams for self-driving and electric vehicle operations to a warehouse in Corktown as Detroit’s comeback narrative draws young workers looking for creative environments, said Ford spokesman Alan Hall.

Ford’s Argo AI has teams in Dearborn, Pittsburgh and Mountain View, Calif. They are developing the systems for a self-driving vehicle slated for 2021. Ford’s other acquisitions in the mobility space, including Chariot, Autonomic and Transloc are in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Durham, North Carolina.

There’s a case to be made for concentrating that innovation closer to home. The more often Detroit imports its technology from the West Coast, the less control it has over the future of the industry, Muro said.

“New mobility and electric vehicles are an existential demand for the survival of the industry, and that means securing the right talent is almost more important because there’s so much work to do,” he said. “The long-term talent base may be the one great threat to this industry.”

While San Francisco streets are traveled by self-driving cars from the likes of Alphabet’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise Automation, the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti is moving to establish itself as a national hub for autonomous technology innovation. The 500-acre driverless-car proving ground at Willow Run includes a 2.5 mile highway loop, a 700-foot curved tunnel, two double overpasses, intersections and roundabouts.

Glenn Kay II talks about the welding program at Washtenaw Community College.

The test area opened for business in December, but president and CEO John Maddox said it’s already having knock-on effects. “Because our facility is so unique and capable, there are companies looking to locate either on the facility directly next to it,” said Maddox, who declined to share their names.

That’s why local programs like Washtenaw Community College’s Advanced Transportation Center, which partners with ACM, could be integral to Detroit’s automotive future. Students in the two-year program are being trained in advanced manufacturing, automotive testing and development — even intelligent transportation systems like vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

Students are learning within the local ecosystem that includes GM, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — as well as major suppliers and self-driving testbeds like the Willow Run facility.

Zach Van Buren, a 27-year-old Ypsilanti resident, is a student in the program. With a background in emergency services, he decided he wanted to test and develop EMS and rescue vehicles after a car accident in 2016 that he says “by all accounts should have put me in the hospital or killed me.”

“At my heart, my passion is old-school cars. I like big trucks. Autonomy was never anything I wanted to play with,” he said. “The more I got involved in not just the safety aspect of it, but protecting the planet, I started to see more about what could be done.”

Down the road from WCC at the University of Michigan, MCity’s TechLab — an incubator for self-driving startups — is training students in the entrepreneurship of advanced automotive technology.

“We’re trying to expose our students to start-up culture” said Greg McGuire, an MCity lab manager. “If these students get a job at a big, established company, that’s great. But we also want them to think about the possibility of building something based on their own idea — a product or a service — because there’s so much room for innovation in the industry.”