Buss: Software engineers: Please apply here

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

Michigan is at the helm of the auto industry’s bright future. It’s ground zero in a U.S. economy increasingly dependent on digitization and software development. No sector is experiencing this more than the “new mobility” auto industry, where more than 70 percent of all innovations are driven by software.

Detroit’s rebounding Big Three are entering innovative partnerships with ride-sharing companies and other tech leaders. And the state is becoming a big player in mobility research and development.

The only thing missing is the people.

The regional talent shortage in the advanced manufacturing industry sounds like tomorrow’s problem. But if we don’t radically adjust how we view automaking, manufacturing and other proverbially “dirty” jobs and increase our support for science, technology, engineering and math (commonly called STEM) in schools and homes, Michigan could lose the next wave of auto development.

Software jobs in manufacturing tripled here over the past six years, and auto companies are ramping up for more. These jobs are stimulating and pay well. But they’re not getting filled.

“In Michigan, we’re having a really hard time,” said Raj Nair, executive vice president of Product Development and chief technical officer at Ford Motor Co. He was speaking, at a conference this week in Flint hosted by the Brookings Institution and Kettering University on how Rust Belt regions can maximize high tech opportunities.

Nair said Michigan struggles to compete for true talent with places like Silicon Valley, where the opportunity to do trendy work trumps the Motor City’s grit. And the pool for workers that, upon hiring, possess the competencies companies need is small — and shrinking.

America still dominates the digital industry, and its top layer of workers are the best in the world. But deeper down the ranks there is a worrisome skills gap.

The industry is throwing huge amounts of time and resources at the problem, and so are state governments like Michigan’s, which now spends $500 million specifically on workforce development — mainly in high tech areas.

Still, we’re not introducing enough kids to these disciplines.

“We’re obviously not cracking this nut,” said Allyson Knox, director of education policy and programs at Microsoft. She pointed to failures in leadership at the regional and state levels that exacerbate the problem.

Microsoft has engineers willing to teach computer classes other teachers can’t, but in Michigan, teaching certification requirements and other red tape keeps them out of classrooms.

The result is that most students aren’t prepared to transition into one of America’s few burgeoning industries. Computer science isn’t required in many school districts, and if it is, it’s often offered as an elective credit. Urban districts are particularly falling behind: Of the 936 students statewide who took the AP computer science test last year, only 16 were African-American.

These elements must change in our traditionally slow-moving education system. The demand will outstrip the education system’s ability to prepare the future workforce.

Meanwhile, global competition is intensifying. Already China, Mexico, and even Poland and Romania are producing large numbers of passionate and qualified software engineers. Jobs will eventually follow the talent.

“We’ll deploy our resources where skills are available,” Nair said.

It’s a polite way of saying Michigan must attract and grow the talent his company — and the whole industry — needs, or it risks losing it all.


Twitter: @KaitlynBuss