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Discovering Talent: Uncovering Opportunity

MICHauto promotes exciting automotive career options to students

Pages 34-35

By Melissa Anders

Rob Luce wants engineering students in Michigan to take note: The automotive industry is not dull, it’s not dying, and it’s a very exciting career choice.

Luce, director of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto program, is working with automotive companies and universities to change perceptions of the state’s major industry to ensure companies have the talent pipeline needed for the sector’s continued growth.

Automotive companies’ demand for engineers in Southeast Michigan greatly exceeds supply. But with Michigan boasting more engineers per capita than any other state, it’s more a lack of interest – not talent – that’s causing the rift.

It’s no secret the automotive industry suffered greatly during the recession and shed thousands of jobs, a fact that likely stays with college graduates as they decide where to send their resumes.

A May 2014 MICHauto career perception survey found that just 30 percent of youths ages 17 to 24 would consider a career in the automotive industry, while 56 percent agreed that the automotive industry is “growing with opportunity and advancement in manufacturing, skilled trades and for those with advanced degrees.” However, only 9 percent of influencers said the automotive industry has a “positive” reputation versus 40 percent of youth.

The survey also found that only 41 percent of adult influencers, including parents, teachers and career counselors, would be very likely to recommend a job in the sector. Instability and a perception of a dead or declining industry were among reasons cited for not recommending the industry as a career choice, according to the survey of 900 youth and adult influencers both inside and outside of Michigan.

“I think the industry still has that black eye on it,” Luce said. “So, although the engineers are still here, they’re choosing to work in industries other than the automotive industry.”

In an effort to change that perception, MICHauto launched the Discover Auto series in November 2013 with an event at the University of Michigan, where officials from several automakers and suppliers met with undergraduate engineering students.

Tim Yerdon, vice president of design, marketing and connected services for Visteon Corporation’s electronics business, offered a keynote speech that highlighted the company’s latest technologies through its new concept vehicle. His speech was followed by a panel discussion with recent U-M engineering graduates who shared why they chose careers in the automotive industry. The event wrapped up with a networking reception where students could meet with recruiters and submit their resumes.

Yerdon focused on Visteon’s advanced driver interface systems in an effort to show that the industry is “not just about building engines or stamping metal for the future,” he said, but also about producing a software-based consumer electronic product. Recruiting employees with high-tech skill sets is becoming more critical as the industry focuses on intelligent mobility and connected vehicle systems, said Yerdon.

One challenge is making sure Michigan’s universities have the right programs in place to prepare graduates for careers in these fields, but it’s also about recruiting and retaining a talented workforce, he said.

“We have to make sure people want to be in the industry and want to stay here long term to make sure we have that sustainability over time for the talent, the people and the products,” Yerdon said.

In its early days, MICHauto heard from a community college chancellor who said the school could do all of the curriculum reform that automotive companies requested, but it wouldn’t do them any good if students aren’t interested in working for those companies. That’s where Discover Auto comes in.

More than 200 resumes were exchanged at an event held at Wayne State University in February, according to Luce. He said automotive companies appreciate the chance to promote themselves outside of traditional career fairs, where they sometimes garner low interest from students who would rather wait in long lines to talk to representatives from companies like Google.

So far, the strategy seems to be working, based on results of surveys students take both before and after the events.

“We’re finding that we’re moving the needle, that we’re improving the perception of working in the automotive industry and planting the seed that you don’t have to move to Silicon Valley to work for Google or Apple if you want to work in a high-tech industry. You can do it right here in your own backyard in a very dynamic, very exciting growing industry and make a lot of money doing it,” Luce said.

MICHauto plans to host a Discover Auto event at Lawrence Technological University in early February, followed by the University of Detroit Mercy in March with the goal of eventually hitting every engineering school in Michigan.

Melissa Anders is a metro Detroit freelance writer