Talent shortage continues to plague Mich. auto industry

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Traverse City – While Michigan enjoys plenty of momentum in efforts to establish the state as a center for developing, testing and self-driving cars, a longstanding problem persists.

Talent recruiting and retention is a problem as work on driverless and connected vehicles forces companies to branch out from their traditional roles and adapt to new technologies. The lack of adequately trained workers has hampered those companies.

It was a common theme among those speaking Monday during the opening sessions of the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City. Several automotive industry officials several bemoaned the challenge they face in getting and keeping workers.

Jay Baron, president and chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor-based CAR group, noted similarities between the current situation and decades ago when the traditional auto industry faced “an apprenticeship crisis in tooling.” That’s a staffing issue that persists; Baron said “today’s average tool-maker is over 32.”

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley outlined the problem in the context of Michigan competing with other locations around the U.S. to draw work and investment on new vehicle technologies. Southeast Michigan competes with places like Silicon Valley for graduates with the engineering and computer skills needed.

“Those who have the best talent are the ones who are doing the best and leading the way,” Calley said. “...I don’t think it would be a stretch to say we are obsessed with skilled trades.”

Robert Bosch LLC, a supplier of automotive technology and services, has an technical center in Plymouth Township. Kay Stepper, head of Bosch’s regional business unit for driver assistance and automated driving, said the talent puzzle remains. Despite having “great job offerings in engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence, vacancies remain.”

“It is struggle,” he said. “We are finding lots and lots of great talent in Michigan and we have excellent schools. The challenge is convincing the talent to stay in the state.”

Michigan government and education officials have worked to increase the number of potential auto workers in the pipeline. That includes looking to expand apprenticeship programs or supporting robotics competitions.

In April, Junior Achievement of Southeast Michigan hosted a gathering of industry representatives from the region in Pontiac. It gave companies an opportunity to meet with area high school students and show them what types of jobs are available. At that time, local officials bemoaned the small local talent pool being fought over by employers.

“Here at our Auburn Hills headquarters, I hired about 160 people last year,” Michael Brosseau, president of Brose North America, said in April. “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.”

But there is room for optimism. Last year, Calley indicated Michigan saw an increased “inbound migration” of people age 25 to 34, something that may have seemed unlikely a decade ago.

“I know that the talent is being attracted back now finally,” he said. “But the growth and demand (of the industry) is outpacing that and is creating a scenario where it’s more urgent than most people realize.”


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