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MICHauto Annual Meeting Addresses Engineering Shortage and Business Climate in Michigan

On Thursday, January 10, preceding the second Annual MICHauto Meeting and Reception, MICHauto hosted 11 Michigan-based automotive supplier executives and 3 representatives from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and the Center for Automotive Research to discuss Michigan’s automotive industry and how Michigan can increase its attractiveness as an automotive investment destination. The agenda was structured to focus on the industry’s engineering shortage and Michigan’s general business climate.

The engineering shortage discussion received significant participation, and was focused more on the quantitative side of the problem – the lack of engineers – rather than the qualitative “skills gap” side. Many engineering majors choose not to enter the field, instead choosing less technical, more lucrative careers where their technical knowledge is an advantage. Of those that do accept an engineering position, too few choose one in the automotive industry. It is also difficult to retain automotive engineers who choose those automotive positions. These scenarios have created a situation where automotive companies are simply stealing engineering talent from each other, negating any significant net increase in the number of automotive engineers in Michigan.

Key takeaways from the engineering shortage discussion

  • New college graduates want to be where the best in their professions are located. Michigan has the best automotive research and development in the country, but there is no dedicated effort to promote the state’s automotive innovation or the people behind it. The industry needs to promote new vehicle technology to entice engineering graduates.
  • It’s not enough to target the students themselves. Parents, teachers and school counselors play an important role in influencing the career decisions of their children and students, and outreach to these individuals is crucial.
  • Considering the significant impact of the automotive downturn on Michigan, automotive companies need to increase their efforts to recruit engineers from out-of-state schools where students are presumably less likely to have preconceived notions of the automotive industry.
  • Automotive companies need to improve workplace environments and implement more flexible schedules to compete with other engineering hubs like Silicon Valley. Google, Apple and Intel offer flexible work schedules and provide nontraditional “perks” like free lunches or back massages that really resonate with young engineers.
  • Some participants indicated they have more success recruiting entry level engineers from Michigan’s smaller, regional colleges and universities than they do from the state’s more renowned universities.
  • There is a need in Michigan for a mechanism to connect automotive companies with engineering needs to the colleges and universities that graduate engineers.
  • The automotive industry needs to do a better job of promoting itself to the general public, to improve its image and combat the vitriol that seems to have befallen the industry. Automotive headlines are historically negative and the industry has allowed others to tell its story for too long. The industry has gone through a significant restructuring that has resulted in a more stable business model, yet the industry is still plagued by a “boom or bust” reputation.

When the discussion turned to Michigan’s business climate and the relationship between the state and the automotive industry, the following themes emerged:

  • Participants indicated their pleasure with the reforms Governor Snyder has implemented since taking office, but mentioned they had yet to really feel the impact of the changes.
  • Participants also indicated they receive significant attention and “red carpet treatment” from competing states, mostly in the South, and Michigan should benchmark what the Southern states are doing to attract automotive investment.
  • Michigan needs a one-stop shop for automotive companies considering Michigan locations and/or expansion; one organization to sell Michigan’s automotive assets and resources, who can then make introductions to the various parties involved in such projects.
  • The automotive industry and key leadership in Lansing need more interaction and opportunities to engage and educate each other. The existing automotive asset base is not consulted as much as it could be.

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