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Howes: Detroit, Silicon Valley vie for fresh talent

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Troy — Forget the battle pitting Silicon Valley software against Detroit’s engineering and manufacturing know-how.

The real race for position in the emerging mobility space is over people and their ideas. Will the hotshots hungry to make a difference more often than not prefer cool California over cold and often gray Michigan? Many times it’s not a fair fight.

“The people we’re hiring are getting offers everywhere — from sexy companies,” says Ryan Morton, a senior research engineer for autonomous vehicles at Ford Motor Co. who joined the company just a year ago from an Ann Arbor-based start up. He rattles off the usual suspects: Google, Uber Technologies Inc. and, of course, Tesla Motors Inc.

The Blue Oval has “a huge presence out there” in California, he continues, declining to say just how many new hires Ford is making for its growing autonomous vehicles program. “We are in the conversation. But we need to be in the conversation here, too.”

Blame perception backed by reality grounded in history. The auto industry built on foundations laid by Henry Ford and Walter Reuther is facing its biggest inflection point of change since the Model T rolled off the moving assembly line and ol’ Henry instituted the “Five-Dollar Day.”

That new technology back then, and Ford’s self-interested hiring plan, revolutionized transportation and reshaped American culture. The push for self-driving vehicles and the innovation powering their development is likely to be just as transformative — a point U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, emphasizes repeatedly.

He did it again Monday in a series of roundtable discussions with industry leaders, engineering deans and others at Automation Alley in Troy. They describe continual grappling with the talent shortages and perception gaps complicating their efforts to keep pace and stay competitive in the fast-evolving mobility space.

“There’s no going back to be great,” Peters said in an interview. “We’ve got to figure out ways to move forward. It is going to require a very different set of structures and institutions in society than what we’ve had in the past.”

Mistaken narratives don’t help, especially if given the imprimatur of a successful presidential campaign. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of American manufacturing’s death are greatly exaggerated. The recapitalization and restructuring of the auto industry in the United States, coupled with the competitive push into the space by software companies, are reinvigorating the sector in ways President Obama’s auto task force could have scarcely imagined less than eight years ago.

Detroit, the industrial powerhouse with high-tech chops, is cool again. It’s featured on serious magazine covers, its story mined for credible connections to a past rife with innovation. Its Silicon Valley rivals are beginning to trade their smug condescension for a respectful understanding that integrating complex technologies into an automotive platform and doing it cost-effectively is much harder than it looks.

It’s also an opportunity. Michigan’s tourism arm wins high marks nationally and around the world for its “Pure Michigan” campaign, a slick, evocative distillation of the real assets of the peninsula surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. It’s past time for a similar “Innovate Michigan,” as one participant mentioned to me, a push that aims to shatter the lazy caricature of what this place was and replace it with what it is.

The leaders joining the senator’s roundtable clearly understand that, as well as the opportunities Michigan’s auto sector can offer aspiring techies eager to go beyond cars and trucks in the transportation space. Getting talent to see that opportunity clearly in the industrial linchpin of the Midwest is another thing entirely.

Michigan gets cold; it snows. Just eight years ago, two of Detroit’s three automakers were in federally induced bankruptcy; tens of thousands lost their jobs, some parts of their pensions. This town’s Big-Company culture is only beginning to shed the conservatism, risk aversion and fear of failure that are anathema in the go-go Silicon Valley culture.

“We’re coming up short on the labor side — we just are,” says Kurt Saldana, CEO of Livonia-based Quality Metalcraft Inc. “We can’t get people to go into automotive.”

And for those who do, the competition to land new hires can be fierce and increasingly expensive, because automakers, suppliers and tech companies often find themselves “fishing in the same pond,” as one of them described the all-too-familiar scene.

Competition is only likely to intensify as a whole generation of engineering talent retires and more companies vie for the best of the next generation. The merging of automotive hardware and tech-driven software is creating a new, integrated business ecosystem with Detroit occupying at least part of its center.

Not bad for a town given up for dead eight years ago.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.