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Editorial: Job opportunities await in auto industry

The Detroit News

The auto industry is having a very profitable year, which is good news following its tumultuous past decade. With record vehicle sales and lower gas prices, there’s improved momentum for the industry as a whole. Now it just needs to convince the next generation of that.

Negative perceptions about the auto industry and careers in it are a growing problem, both for the automakers and the future of the state. Changing those perceptions and better preparing students for high-tech manufacturing jobs is critical.

“We do not have the appropriate skill set being developed,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, who is also working on a new program —Building America’s Tomorrow — focused on preparing urban kids and young women specifically for high-tech, skilled manufacturing jobs.

“Across the industry, the number one problem executives are talking about is talent,” Cole said.

Companies, specifically Detroit’s Big Three, are trying to incentivize young people to work for them. FCA US in May announced employees at their dealerships can receive a college degree for no cost and no debt. Ford Motor Co. has started academies in Detroit schools and other cities around the country to train students for future jobs, and the GM Foundation has worked with United Way to infuse STEM education into Detroit area schools.

But negative perceptions and lack of appropriate training persist.

According to a survey conducted last year by MICHAuto, less than half of young people ages 17 to 24 believe the auto industry offers global opportunities to work and live, or that it involves a culturally diverse group of colleagues. Just 55 percent of young people’s “influencers” — parents of 12-17-year-olds, leaders of youth organizations, high school and college educators, career and academic advisers — believe the industry is such.

Those numbers have real-life implications. In five years, 10 million jobs will be unfilled with the current skill shortage; in 15 years, 30 million jobs.

Emphasizing math and science in K-12 education, as well as better informing students on the high-tech, global opportunities available in the industry, can help close this gap.

Jobs today in the auto industry — and more broadly, manufacturing jobs — are “very high-tech, very clean,” added Cole.

These jobs are also critical for Michigan’s economy. For every one job in the auto industry, nine additional jobs are created through outlets such as suppliers, manufacturers, and dealers.

That’s part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent push to attract and retain talent in the industry. A new initiative, “We Run on Brainpower,” was announced at the center’s Briefing Seminars in Traverse City last week.

The goal is to attract more much-needed, high-quality workers of all kinds to the industry.

And there’s good reason to consider the auto industry or manufacturing in general.

With self-driving cars in the future, some companies kids do consider cool — Google, Uber and Apple, for example — are making big bets on that technology. The message should be that you can be an automotive engineer and still have a career with a hip, cutting edge company.

And few industries are as globally competitive as the auto industry. Companies based in Detroit — and throughout the nation — provide a unique platform for global experiences.

Michigan relies on the automotive industry, and the future talent to fill its roles. It’s time to change outdated perceptions about these careers and help young people embrace them.