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Rick Haglund: As auto industry faces retirements, will young people want to fill those jobs?

From: MLive

By Rick Haglund

July 14, 2014

A lot has been written about young people who don’t seem as enthused about buying cars and trucks as their parents were at their age.

It turns out many aren’t interested in building them, either.

That’s potentially a big problem for Michigan’s economy, which is heavily dependent on the success of the auto industry.

A recent survey of 900 young people age 17 through 24, parents and other adult “influencers” living in and outside Michigan found widespread negative perceptions of the auto industry.

Many believe the industry is in decline and offers poor career prospects. Less than 50 percent of those surveyed said the auto business offered career growth in manufacturing, skilled trades and for those with advanced degrees.

Just 9 percent of adult influencers said the auto industry has a positive reputation.

And only 9 percent of young people outside of Michigan who don’t know anyone who works in the auto industry said they would consider an automotive-related career.

The survey was conducted for MichAuto, an initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber that works to promote and grow Michigan’s auto industry.

It comes at a time when the state’s auto industry is booming and claiming a severe shortage of workers with STEM skills—science, technology, engineering and math.

A new Brookings Institution report found that 44 percent of the 13,343 job openings in metro Detroit in early 2013 required STEM skills.

In metro Grand Rapids, 37 percent of the 2,012 job openings required STEM skills.

“There is so much need for those skills now and in the future,” said Glenn Stevens, vice president of MichAuto.

Michigan automakers and suppliers are facing large-scale retirements of skilled workers in the next few years, Stevens said.

And stiffer federal fuel economy standards over the next decade will boost the need for engineers and other technical workers.

“We need to build a pipeline” of future talent, Stevens said.

MichAuto and other organizations are working to do that in programs that promote automotive careers in high schools and universities through student forums, plant and technical center tours and other initiatives.

But it won’t be easy to turn young people who want to live in big cities and ride public transportation into gearheads.

While those surveyed by MichAuto recognize the auto industry as “high-tech,” many of the best and brightest young talent see more lucrative career opportunities in other fields.

Plus, the cyclical auto industry has a well-earned reputation for instability. Auto companies and suppliers shed half of their manufacturing jobs during the past decade, while General Motors, Chrysler and several major suppliers went bankrupt.

No job is completely secure. But the auto industry needs to provide some assurance to its recruits that a career in cars won’t end in the unemployment line.