Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

As always, the Mackinac Policy Conference was a hubbub of conversation, with many plans and ideas to continue moving Southeast Michigan forward. This year, there were some critical conversations around talent. For example, an executive from Dow Chemical Co. emphasized the need for more and better science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in schools. Detroit’s Mayor Mike Duggan asked the business community to help create 5,000 summer employment opportunities for the city’s youth, an important strategy for connecting young people to the workforce and avoiding many socioeconomic challenges.

Many conversations revolved around the automotive industry: Wayne County EDGE, in partnership with the Workforce Intelligence Network and Center for Automotive Research, shared the federal announcement that a 13-county area led by Southeast Michigan has been targeted for substantial new investment in auto manufacturing-related talent, innovation, infrastructure and other strategies. (See Advance Michigan for more information.) The region will be one of 12 communities across the country to receive a portion of $1.3 billion in cumulative national investment. Southeast Michigan partners agreed to target related funding around automotive efficiency and safety, with special emphasis on lightweight materials and connectivity. Key investments will support development of a talented workforce that can support new industry developments in these areas.

On the very same day, however, MichAuto confirmed through a study that young people’s primary career influencers are not encouraging them to explore automotive careers, the key economic driver in the region. While 40 percent of Michigan youth aged 17-24 viewed the automotive industry as having a positive reputation, only 9 percent of influencers did so. Less than half of influencers would recommend a job in the automotive industry.

These attitudes are not surprising; after all, the region has been burned before, and not just once. Moreover, the most recent time happened to be one of the greatest upheavals in the automotive industry’s history. But it is hard to overlook that recovery is afoot. According to a recent industry survey by Manufacturers’ News Inc., Michigan has gained manufacturing jobs in each of the last three years, with 2013, yielding 13,084 new positions. In first quarter 2014, in Southeast Michigan alone, there were more than 11,000 postings in manufacturing fields, including the skilled trades, engineering, design and other positions. Most of these were tied to automotive.

Jobs in the 20th century jobs that were lost during the recession are being replaced by 21st century positions that require more training and improved skills. Today’s cars are the most technologically advanced product that consumers will own, and this stature will only grow as partnerships like Google and Roush produce new vehicles (manufactured right here in Southeast Michigan) that can drive themselves, among other things. It is hard to fathom the time of training and education that will be required of the workforce needed to produce such vehicles, but rest assured, it will involve mechanical, electrical and computing prowess combined with the ability to understand integrated systems and both the business and technical aspects of new product development.

In other words, these are complex and exciting jobs that will bring propel the industry and the region into the next generation of mobility and connectivity.  If influencers — teachers, parents, peers — continue to discourage young people from exploring these careers, they are undermining not only the region’s economic future, but the opportunity for young people to be part of this exciting (and yes, even well-paying) industry transformation.

Sometimes when things get broken, they cannot be repaired, but sometimes they are made stronger. Southeast Michigan’s automotive industry did not experience just another downturn. It underwent a fundamental transformation. Yes, it was painful, but what has evolved (and continues to evolve) has the potential to be stronger than ever before. Organizations like JPMorgan Chase and the federal government are making big investments here because they know there will be positive returns.   Those returns will result in great part due to the region’s automotive legacy and future. As a parent, I strongly endorse my kids to participate in that future and encourage others to follow suit.

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