Detroit-based automakers face many challenges, from supply chain delays to brisk competition from afar. But perhaps the biggest challenge is finding enough tech-savvy workers for today’s and tomorrow’s needs.
At the General Motors Tech Center in Warren alone, the talent website Indeed.com in mid-July listed hundreds of job openings, and that’s common throughout the domestic auto industry in Detroit, said Glenn Stevens Jr., executive director of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto program, the state’s only automotive and mobility cluster association.
“This is our number-one priority,” Stevens said. “When you look at a lot of rankings and a lot of profiles we are not viewed as a growing tech hub in North America. We’re not at the forefront where we believe we can be and should be. We have a lot of work to do.”
INSTITUTIONAL FIREPOWER, MISSING INVESTMENT
It’s not that the Detroit region and Michigan lack the institutions to produce talented high-tech workers. With training and operational centers like TechTown in Detroit, Ann Arbor SPARK in Ann Arbor, Kettering University in Flint, and the GM Tech Center in Warren, the infrastructure for training and employing tech talent is in place.
But a couple of things are missing, and they are related. First, the Detroit region, and Michigan more broadly, lacks the cachet of a Seattle or Boston as a magnet for talented and educated tech workers. Among the missing pieces: Good public transit as found in Boston and Chicago, and enough walkable urban districts like those slowly developing in Midtown and Corktown neighborhoods in Detroit.
Those deficits are partly the result of a failure in public policy, said Ned Staebler, vice president for economic development at Wayne State University. State revenue sharing dollars to Michigan cities have dropped dramatically over the years, leading to fewer parks, libraries, and other public amenities in Michigan cities. The state’s investment in venture capital for startups, once robust, is less now than before.
“We don’t invest in innovation like we used to,” Staebler said.
MORE ON THE WAY
The good news is that Detroit is adding to its tech-talent resources with major projects. Ford’s huge investment in turning the old Michigan Central Station into its hub of mobility research is nearing completion, along with related investments in the surrounding Corktown area. TechTown itself, now nearly 20 years old, continues to expand and works with more than 1,000 startup firms.
And the University of Michigan’s planned Center for Innovation in the Ilitch family’s District Detroit will bring hundreds of advanced tech students and researchers into the heart of the city when completed in a few years.
“By bringing together top researchers and students, along with early-stage startups and established tech companies like ServiceNow, the Detroit Center for Innovation will support the development of home-grown talent while attracting resources and investment from around the country,” said Andrew Cantor, executive vice president of development of related companies and president of Related Michigan.
NO TIME TO WASTE
Staebler agreed on the importance of those new settings but points out that, in many ways, other regions have gotten the jump on Detroit. Pittsburgh created its technology council back in the ’90s. The OhioX program, a nonprofit entity that rallies companies, universities, and others involved in the talent creation pipeline to keep Ohio moving forward, is already well underway.
Referring to the UM Center and Ford’s train station project, Staebler said, “All those are good things, and we need more of them, but it’s to make up for the fact that at a high level we’re far behind.”
Stevens echoed that concern.
“We’re not retaining enough of the tech talent and we’re not creating enough of the right tech talent,” he said. “The companies themselves are looking at their workforces and saying, ‘We don’t have enough software engineering fire power, we don’t have enough electrification propulsion system firepower.’’
With every job classification in virtually every industry, not just automotive, requiring more digital skills than ever, the job of attracting, creating, and retaining tech talent must become a priority.
“There’s a lot of energy going into this,” Stevens said. “But there has to be a great deal more to position Michigan as one of those leaders where people say, ‘That’s a tech hub.’”