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Get Smart: Michigan’s Companies Spar for Top Tech Talent

Automakers and municipalities alter recruiting tactics, seek grassroots solution

By James Amend

If cities across the nation want to get “smart,” they will need smart talent to crunch data and design, engineer and install the technology to manage the local ecosystem effi ciently. Unfortunately, as industrial and civic leaders across Southeast Michigan know too well, that talent is few and high in demand.

“We have a pretty severe talent drain,” said Kristen Tabar, vice president of the Technical Strategy Planning Office at Toyota North America.

Tabar said Toyota’s dilemma, where it needs sharp talent from a broad range of disciplines to create the connected cars and trucks that will prowl smart cities, is not unique. Every major automaker is ramping up already robust recruiting efforts to score that talent.

“We all have excellent relationships with the state’s universities, colleges and community colleges, but we are just not getting enough talent,” said Tabar, who determines which R&D projects the Ann Arbor facility will undertake and ensures there are adequate resources, including people, to execute them successfully.

The automotive industry’s shortage of technical talent is not exclusive to advanced engineering graduates or the rare data scientist, either. Technicians with high school diplomas and a smattering of vocational skills training to install and maintain a smart city’s infrastructure are difficult to find, too, as are the software code writers whose programs will manage the firehouse of data underpinning the operation of smart cities.

The shortage has the industry navigating unchartered waters. In Michigan, local OEMs and suppliers for decades enjoyed the pick of the litter from engineering schools, which have always been among the best in the nation. But those graduates know their skills now are in demand across the country and in many ways, they are calling the shots, Tabar said.

“Fifteen years ago, it was the old saying, ‘If you build it they will come.’ We would always get great talent,” she said. “That is not the situation today. Toyota remains a great draw, with great recognition, but the candidates are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing them.”

Although the automotive career perception trend is beginning to shift positively according to a 2017 survey conducted by the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto initiative, one big weight on recruiting has been the industry’s downturn in 2009. Many children whose parents lost jobs are graduating college with a dim view of the industry.

“They are steering away from automotive because of a fear factor,” Tabar said.

The talent drought, coupled by a general lack of understanding of the mobility industry, compelled Toyota to shift its messaging to underscore how automotive has evolved. Toyota, for example, encourages employees to move about the company and inspires them to fi nd leadership roles.

“Find out what you love to do, but develop a broad perspective,” she said.

A recent survey of chief information officers found nearly 50 percent felt they would experience a talent shortage this year. Trade journal headlines paint a grimmer picture, with reports of rival companies pinching each other for talent, including high-profile talent raids of autonomous car experts at Google and Carnegie Mellon.

The talent shortage has several causes, most notably the meteoric rise of Silicon Valley technology companies, but also the proliferation of technology across industries. Health care, finance, retail, cybersecurity and government are just a few of the industries duking it out for talent to deploy advanced technology to manage their operations more efficiently.

“They are all competing for the same graduates, because every industry wants to get smart,” said Luke Forrest, director of Civic Innovation at the Michigan Municipal League, an association of municipalities and municipal leaders.

The competitiveness has acutely affected automotive and municipalities, which arguably will be the backbone of smart cities. Privately owned cars and public transportation within a smart city must be engineered to communicate with each other, as well as infrastructure such as stoplights and crosswalks to work together safely. Experts within government, meanwhile, must have the expertise to manage data created by a smart city.

“Baby Boomers are retiring and it is going to impact the functioning of (municipal) systems, such as a public works department, where people make things run behind the scenes. Layer smart cities on top of that and the public works system of tomorrow becomes an experiment,” Forrest said.

Forrest said a major trend among municipalities is to drive up resident education levels, which link directly to economic strength. In other words, smart cities need smart residents and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 13.4 percent of Detroit residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That compares with Pittsburgh, a city reborn from the steel industry crash on the back of tech companies and is now a hotbed of driverless car research, where 38.3 percent of residents hold a college diploma.

Damien Rocchi, CEO and co-founder of Grand Circus, an IT training institute in Detroit that also helps place graduates into 60 partner companies, said the talent necessary to build out smart cities remains difficult to lure away from the coasts. But the industrial, social and housing renaissance Detroit has enjoyed in recent years leaves him optimistic.

“We are in a much better position than we were just five years ago to keep talent, the people who can build a smart city, here,” he said.

James Amend is a senior editor at WardsAuto in Southfield.