By James A. Mitchell

Keeping it light may be the hottest topic going among workforce experts. The need for lighter materials dominated the Global Automotive Lightweighting Materials Congress, a three-day gathering in Detroit Aug. 18 to 20.

Industry experts are in search of the next generation of vehicles, and finding the talent to drive the technology.

The demand for workers in lightweighting-related jobs has never been more pronounced, even outpacing the skills-gap laden STEM jobs. Online ads for lightweighting-related jobs in Michigan more than doubled in the first four months of 2015, according to the Lightweight Innovations For Tomorrow (LIFT), a manufacturing consortium that has partnered in Michigan with the Workforce Intelligence Network,

“Cleary those jobs are not all filled,” said Emily Stover DeRocco, workforce and education director for LIFT. “It’s important now to focus on filling those gaps to better position our manufacturers to be ready and able to use new technologies.”

In Michigan alone there were 20,840 lightweighting-related job postings from January through April, up from 9,389 in November and December 2014. The openings reflected an overall 36 percent increase in jobs: Forty percent of those positions paid an annual salary of $50,000 or more, and more than half required at least a Bachelor’s degree.

More than 140 occupations qualified as lightweighting-related including skilled trades, administration, and engineering and design. To better focus on a technology that has implications across many sectors and fields, LIFT formed in 2014 as a public-private partnership operated by the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute to streamline education and training programs in five key manufacturing states. DeRocco said the immediate priorities included identifying which skills sets were most needed.

“Our efforts in the first year were to work with state teams and see where the gaps are,” DeRocco said. “We focused on the in-demand jobs, knowledge, skills and abilities.”

Working with employment agencies, hiring managers and educators LIFT has implemented educational pathways in machining, metal forming, engineering and other fields. The critical ingredient was to ensure that new technologies and components were part of course curriculums.

“The integration of skills and technology must be part of normal education and training programs. That’s a big job,” DeRocco said. The skills gap includes a generational divide between young students who’d grown up with technology and experienced workers who needed skill upgrades.

”The incoming students are digital natives and technology savvy,” DeRocco said. “They have foundational skills that need fine-tuning. Incumbent workers need that foundation as well.”

DeRocco said that in its second year LIFT will continue emphasizing the foundational STEM skills needed for the most in-demand positions. The rise in job openings doesn’t appear ready to slow any time soon, driven both by the rising trend of lightweighting for vehicles and other technologies, but also by an aging workforce.

“We better be prepared for an increase [in unfilled positions] resulting from retirement,” DeRocco said. The anticipated “big cliff” of baby-boomers who’d delayed ending careers during the recession will only add to the existing skills gap. “It’s important that we build the talent supply chain so we don’t find ourselves in a worse gap.”

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