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Supplying Talent

Automotive suppliers focus efforts to attract top tier talent to Michigan

Pages 32-33

By Noah Purcell

Two-thirds of the value of today’s automobile — the innovations, parts and technology — come from suppliers. That kind of production requires top tier talent and makes maintaining a sustainable pipeline of highly skilled workers and talent attraction a top priority for Michigan’s hundreds of suppliers.

“The automotive industry creates some of the highest paying, most creative and rewarding jobs and careers out there and people just need to hear about it,” said Dan Sceli, CEO of Peterson Spring. “In the next 10 to 20 years, whether it’s driver assist or autonomous vehicles, or all the new safety and efficiency legislation, there’s going to be more new technology developed in the automotive industry than in probably the previous 100 years.”

“Technology is front and center in the automotive industry, it’s not just putting lug nuts on. These cars today are more powerful than some of the space rockets we’ve sent to the moon,” added Sceli.

Others in the automotive industry sound a similar note to Sceli when touching on the industry’s potential attraction points.

“We have a lot of toys in our sandbox; it gives us a competitive advantage to attract, retain and grow our future leaders,” said Mark Flynn, vice president of human resources at Johnson Controls.

Addressing talent acquisition, Flynn emphasized the need to reach kids while they are still young.

“(Johnson Controls), as you can imagine, has thousands of patents, and these patents come from people who once upon a time were in fifth grade and had a creative mind and an ability to think in abstract and in multiple dimensions and solve problems,” he said.

“Those are the types of people that this industry needs. You don’t get them by going to the job boards on the Internet and saying ‘Hey, I have a job. Who wants to come in and do it?’ You have to think like a curator and work far upstream,” Flynn said, pointing to Johnson Controls’ work-study programs at Detroit Cristo Rey High School and the company’s outreach in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools.

As children’s engineering imaginations are stoked by robotics competitions and enhanced curricula, automotive leaders further hope that the flurry of attention on high-tech pursuits will help the industry position itself as a favorable career destination.

“We’re finding that more and more, some of these technology companies that kids want to go work for are actually automotive suppliers now — whether it’s Apple or Google or whoever — they’re in the supply base as well, so there’s a lot more cross-pollination that’s going to happen,” said Sceli, who cited university visits, employee referrals and technical apprenticeships as key recruitment strategies in addition to youth-focused initiatives such as video contests.

The way Mark Montone, director of sales for Lacks Trim Systems in Grand Rapids, sees it, the problem of replacing an aging workforce is also a recruitment opportunity. “For a lot of people, there’s never been a better time to get into (the automotive industry) because you’re going to have so many people retiring. They’re going to be in leadership positions at a very young age, and that includes a person who starts on the floor; I’m not just talking about white-collar jobs,” Montone said.

Citing programs like Michigan Advanced Technician Training (MAT2), a three-year training program in which tuition costs are paid by employers, Montone said he hopes that a powerful recruitment strategy can help reverse Michigan’s “brain drain.”

“We have a lot of great things in Michigan, and I would be really pleased if we could keep our young people here and attract some from out of state. If (kids) love working with robotics or love working with video games … if they like the computer side of the business, they can make a great living in this state,” he said.

Automotive executives feel that keeping a tight focus on talent curation is a task that demands persistent attention.

“The control is in our hands, and it’s a challenge that we have to accept and meet every single day by creating the most compelling attraction and retention story for talent,” Flynn said.

Noah Purcell is a metro Detroit freelance writer