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Editorial: Fill the auto talent pipeline

From: The Detroit News

May 29, 2014

Schools must let students know about the variety of good career opportunities that exist in today’s auto industry

MACKINAC ISLAND—The automotive industry thrives on innovation and creativity. And its future promises even more excitement and opportunity as cars and technology become more closely aligned. That’s one of the messages the Detroit Regional Chamber is promoting at its Mackinac Policy Conference this week.

Yet for Michigan to remain an auto epicenter, more young people need to consider careers in the industry so that employers have a steady pipeline of talented, prepared workers. And that includes everything in the job spectrum, from tool and die maker and welder to engineer and designer. The state struggles with a skills gap, with employers unable to find the trained workers they need — that includes auto-related jobs.

This gap will continue to grow, unless more young people recognize that the auto industry once again is a valid career choice.

To get a pulse on the attitudes of young people and adults in Michigan and outside the state toward careers in this industry, the chamber’s MICHauto program conducted a survey. It released the results Wednesday. This is part of MICHauto’s overall effort to raise awareness about careers in the auto industry.

The survey results indicate a high percentage of youth and their influencers — parents, teachers and school counselors — do not see the automotive industry as an attractive career option. That’s a problem.

“Talent retention, attraction and development is critical to Michigan maintaining its position as the global leader of the automotive industry,” said Glenn Stevens, vice president of MICHauto.

Stevens said he was aware of the misconceptions about the industry, but having this data should help MICHauto better direct its resources.

The survey found that less than one in two participants believe the auto industry offers “growth in terms of opportunity and advancement in manufacturing, skilled trades and for those with advanced degrees.”

The adults who work with young people also lack awareness of the potential in the industry. Less than half would recommend a job in the automotive industry. Only 9 percent say the automotive industry has a “positive” reputation.

One of the main topics of discussion at the conference this week is STEM education — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Given the need for increased awareness of jobs in the auto industry, more Michigan schools should expose students to these subjects and career possibilities.

Several groups in the state, in addition to MICHauto, are trying to spark interest in auto careers — and other STEM-related fields. A good approach is bringing tangible projects into the classroom, such as building a vehicle. “They have to see it, they have to feel it,” says Karl Klimek, executive director of Michigan-based Square One Education Network, which promotes STEM education in K-12 schools through hands-on learning.

Klimek and his colleagues works directly with more than 100 schools around the state.

He points to all the different companies in Michigan involved with connected vehicle technology and opportunities there for the next generation of auto workers.

Stevens also highlights the potential for industry growth beyond manufacturing as cars become more integrated with technology.

And while the increasingly high-tech aspect of the industry means more students will need to pursue some form of higher education, many of the skilled trades don’t require more than an associate’s degree. “There are a wide range of options,” Stevens says. “We need to fill the talent pipeline.”