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Michigan schools on cutting edge of high-tech programs to meet needs of auto industry

By Dawson Bell

Employment prospects in Michigan have turned around dramatically since the depths of the Great Recession in 2008-09.

Overall job numbers have rebounded to near pre-recession levels. The state’s unemployment rate (5.4 percent) is now below the national average after a decade spent among the highest in the country (peaking in 2009 at 14.9 percent).

But one of the most striking features of Michigan’s turnaround is that it represents not so much a restoration of a lost economy, but the creation of a transformed one.

Nowhere is that transformation more remarkable than in the automotive and transportation manufacturing and service sectors — long the bedrock of the state’s economy. The home of the auto industry has become ground zero for the development of 21st century mobility technology. And with that transformation comes one of the most significant challenges the state now faces: developing a workforce with the talents needed to sustain that position of leadership.

Consider a report issued in April by the research group Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan, which identified 564,000 state workers employed in the broad category of transportation safety — from tractor-trailer drivers to engineers and planners. The size of the cohort is astonishingly robust, and the demand for new workers intense.

Yet in some areas most in search of new talent, demand far outstrips supply. In 2014, for example, employers sought to fill more than 16,500 jobs for transportation-related application and software developers, while only 1,586 potential employees had recently completed the requisite training for those jobs.

Fortunately, a broad range of educational institutions, nonprofits and businesses are moving quickly to turn the skills gap around. Among them:

Washtenaw Community College, where the Advanced Transportation Center (ATC), launched in 2015, is working with academic and industry partners to provide training and certification for students in a variety of leading transportation technologies. Those include: computer service diagnostics, lightweight materials and advanced manufacturing techniques, and the technology required for autonomous and connected vehicles.

Director Al Lecz, who spent 36 years with Ford Motor Co. working primarily as a powertrain engineer, said technology has fundamentally transformed the transportation industry. The culture has rapidly become one in which flexibility, innovation and creative problem solving are highly valued, he said.

“It is an absolutely thrilling time to be an engineer or technician,” Lecz said.

The Michigan Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing (MCAM), formed by eight community colleges (Bay, Grand Rapids, Kellogg, Lake Michigan, Lansing, Macomb, Mott and Schoolcraft), trains aspiring and displaced workers in high-demand technical fields, e.g. computer numerical control (CNC) and mechatronics (combining electronics and engineering). The program received a nearly $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor at its launch in 2013.

The formation of a partnership between Ford Motor Co. and the University of Michigan will bring Ford engineers and researchers on campus at the university’s new robotics lab. The partnership is aimed at accelerating autonomous vehicle research in collaboration with UM academics and students in a place where “machines walk, fly, drive and swim,” according to reports issued with its announcement in September.

Connected and Autonomous Networked Vehicles for Active Safety (CANVAS), within Michigan State University’s electrical and computer engineering program, is testing a range of technologies for driverless and connected cars.

Director Hayder Radha said the objective is to train a new generation of engineers in new technology that rely on sensors, radar, computer science and artificial intelligence to create a vehicle capable of independent navigation.

In the last 20 years, vehicles have evolved rapidly into highly sophisticated mobile computers, Radha said. But the impending launch of autonomous and connected vehicles has generated unprecedented interest among millennials.

“I’ve been overwhelmed with students who want to work in this area,” Radha said. “They may not even want to drive, but they want to develop and drive autonomous vehicles.”

MSU Engineering Dean Leo Kempel said Michigan has long been home to the highest per-capita concentration of engineers of any state in the country. What is changing is the rapid expansion of the field into new disciplines, like computer science, sensor technology and artificial intelligence.

“Students want to work on those things. They want to work in areas where they can make change,” Kempel said.

That ideal has also led to a boom in interest in Wayne State University’s electric-drive vehicle engineering degree program, one of the first programs of its kind in the United States aimed at reducing the nation’s dependence on imported fossil energy and lessening the environmental impact of petroleum-based vehicles through innovation.

For more than a century Michigan has been a preeminent state for engineering and technology, Kempel said, “but in 20 years, I think we may look back and say the last 20 were better than the previous 50.”

The pace of change is dizzying, but Michigan’s colleges appear to be keeping up.

Dawson Bell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.