Scores of automotive engineers are swarming Cobo Center this week in an annual celebration of the industry that put the world on wheels, stumbled badly and roared back with an edge to compete seriously in Auto 2.0.

Suppliers are humming. Hometown giant General Motors Co., barely a decade removed from being the global industry’s laughingstock, is anything but. Ford Motor Co., doubling down on its truck and SUV legacy, is transforming its Dearborn campus and claiming a chunk of Detroit’s Corktown to woo young talent.

Emphasis on the word “talent,” the lifeblood of any company whose leaders really want to compete. And for the town that helped put the world on wheels, wooing more of it — not less — could be a critical difference between winning and losing the tech-driven race to mobility, autonomy and electrification.

That’s a problem ... around here, anyway. Because even as the SAE International’s World Congress unspools this week downtown, yet another wave of dismal test results for Michigan students is showing just how far behind the educational attainment curve this state really is.

And skeptical Republicans in the state Legislature are showing once again that this place does a much better job talking the talent game than actually delivering it. The House education budget committee pared Gov. Rick Snyder’s so-called “Marshall Plan for Talent,” his departing effort to better prepare Michigan kids for the kind of technology jobs Auto 2.0 already demands.

The excuses are typical: the governor’s a lame duck; the Legislature faces significant turnover after the November elections; “throwing money” at the current “delivery model,” according to one lawmaker, won’t deliver a different result — all of which means nothing substantive gets done.

Do they think no one in a wired world will notice? That the place laying claim to being the intellectual epicenter of the auto industry’s second century, of its autonomous future, can’t educate its kids very effectively? That students in its largest city of Detroit scored dead last among 27 urban centers in last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress — for the fifth consecutive year?

Oh, people notice. Like Inc., which dropped metro Detroit from its short list of candidates for a second North American headquarters in part because of concerns about talent. Like the state’s own business leaders, who are using their lofty perch (and power over hiring decisions) to sound the alarm on Michigan’s miserable educational performance.

Like the local automakers, who now find themselves competing for talent and investor cred with the most valuable companies in corporate America. Auto execs know they’ll need a steady talent pipeline to compete in a next-generation industry with both traditional rivals and Silicon Valley heavies.

“By 2020, it’s estimated the U.S. will face a shortage of roughly half-a-million engineers,” Mark Reuss, GM’s executive vice president of global product development, wrote in a blog post. “It’s a situation that threatens to undermine our nation’s ability to compete in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology and innovation — unless we act now.

“We must take swift, bold action to achieve or exceed the talent levels in Silicon Valley and other technology hubs,” continued Reuss, scheduled to deliver the closing World Congress keynote on Thursday. “True success lies in developing our own talent among the young people of this region.”

Yes, but true success eludes because the crisis is slower moving, measured in annual test results soon forgotten and false comfort that under-achievement is a problem others have, not you. The numbers say otherwise, of course, and the localized finances of school districts across the state means there will be no precipitating fiscal crisis to force change.

Worse, if history is any guide, the prospect that the governor’s office and at least half the Legislature goes to the Democrats means policy direction is likely to reverse. And that highlights a particularly vexing reality: reforms seldom get enough time to prove whether they can yield results before the governing politics shift.

The result is a constant churn that whipsaws students and teachers, families and governing boards, test scores and grades, standards and expectations. A top GM executive can call for “swift, bold action,” but he’s more likely to get neither — except when Republicans get a chance to stick it once again to the teachers unions.

The challenge: getting the people who can deliver change to hear the message and act, to understand that the cost of lagging behind only will keep growing. Michigan, and its kids, will be the losers.

(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 at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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