Auto industry embarks on hunt for mobility experts old and new

The automotive industry is jostling with tech hubs to acquire the necessary expertise in computer-related fields. The Michigan Mobility Institute is investigating how to secure the right talent. By Freddie Holmes

The concept of future mobility has sparked a scrap between various industries to secure new talent. As the automotive sector looks beyond simply manufacturing vehicles and toward the provision of services, a variety of new job roles are opening up. Filling those positions may not be easy.

Professionals with the relevant software, robotics and electronics skills have various career options on the table, be it at a global tech giant or within the aviation, military and automotive industries. All are after the same talent—it is a tug of war.

As a heartland for automotive manufacturing, Michigan is well versed in the traditional facets of making a vehicle. However, the unrelenting pursuit of next-generation mobility has highlighted a gap in local talent, with tech hubs often luring prospective engineers away. Silicon Valley is an obvious example, but the likes of Singapore, Tel Aviv and Bengaluru have also become a first port-of-call for those with a software and electronics skill set. To get around the issue, a dedicated facility has been established to educate and upskill the next generation of mobility experts in Detroit. And for good reason—employment opportunities are expected to soar in coming years.

The unrelenting pursuit of next-generation mobility has highlighted a gap in local talent, with tech hubs often luring prospective engineers away

Home to the likes of Ford, General Motors and other automakers, along with many of their core suppliers, the city aims to position itself as a leader in the development of driverless cars, electric vehicles (EVs) and shared mobility services. Ford recently bought the currently decrepit Michigan Central Station, which is being renovated as an 18-storey mobility lab.

The state has passed legislation that allows automakers to hone autonomous vehicle (AV) technology across the state’s 122,000-mile road network, supported by dedicated AV proving grounds: the University of Michigan’s Mcity, and the American Center of Mobility’s Willow Run facility. Earlier in 2019, Waymo voiced plans to build its next generation of self-driving vehicles in southeast Michigan, in partnership with local Tier 1 Magna. Around 400 new jobs are expected as a result. Detroit start-up Rivian is also eyeing local production of its EVs.

Facing change, again

The Michigan Mobility Institute was founded in 2018 by Jessica Robinson—previously with Ford’s Smart Mobility unit and Zipcar—and Chris Thomas, a co-founder of future mobility investment firm Fontinalis. NuTonomy founder Karl Iagnemma and Alisyn Malek, co-founder of May Mobility, sit on the advisory board.

It is the first initiative from the Detroit Mobility Lab, an entity tasked with placing the city at the forefront of next-generation mobility. “If the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan are serious about becoming one of the leading future mobility start-up ecosystems in the world,” said Thomas at the time, “we need to create an entity dedicated to producing professionals who will lead in these specialisations.”

Initial investigations have confirmed expectations that talent could be tough to source, and particularly in Detroit. However, it is a challenge the state of Michigan has faced before.

The market crash of 2008 is widely seen as the worst economic disaster the automotive industry has ever faced. But following the eventual resurgence of manufacturing in Detroit and its neighbouring townships, players soon found themselves fighting tooth and nail for engineers. A report by the Michigan Department of Treasury in June 2009 found that the state had the highest unemployment rate in the country—between 10.6% in Ann Arbor and 17.4% in Flint. By 2012, local news outlets reported that manufacturers in the state were ‘begging’ for automotive engineers, with job listings rarely taking more than three days to fill. Today, unemployment in Michigan is at around 4%.

Talent could be tough to source, and particularly in Detroit. However, it is a challenge the state of Michigan has faced before

Looking ahead, the state is set to recruit the next generation of mobility experts with the same vim. It should be emphasised that existing jobs will not be supplanted. Instead, an additional array of talent outside the automotive industry’s traditional expertise is required. “Michigan is quite rightfully proud of the number of engineers it has in the region—it has been the source of its strength. But as we began speaking with companies that are changing and hiring, the topic of talent kept coming up,” explained Robinson. “It turns out there has not been much research into the talent needs for the future of mobility, and folks in the industry have told us that it is too important not to focus on.”

Is Michigan falling behind?

While Michigan may be facing a talent shortage, the problem extends elsewhere. The fact is that so many industries are adopting new software-driven technologies and business models that workers with the necessary skills are more sought after than ever before.

“Speaking honestly, everybody is behind,” said Robinson. “Job creation is happening so fast. Silicon Valley has historically been well-positioned in software, but even there you have a talent war for computer software engineers who are going into all other kinds of industries—entertainment, apps, and whatever comes out of Silicon Valley next.”

Speaking honestly, everybody is behind… Silicon Valley has historically been well-positioned in software, but even there you have a talent war

Indeed, the automotive industry faces strong competition from outside industries. Automakers could do little more to set out the stall for future mobility; motor shows and press releases are dominated by buzzwords relating to connected, automated, shared and electric vehicles—widely referred to as the CASE megatrends. Mechanical and hydraulic engineering will remain vital, but automakers must continue to shake the image of being behind the times. “Folks that come out of our schools with traditional engineering degrees, and even computer science degrees, are not thinking of mobility first. This is due in no small part to the fact that as an industry we do not always do a good job of telling the story about these careers,” said Robinson. “It is as much a question of how many people are entering the industry as it is how many leave school with the right skill set. Historically, automotive hasn’t recruited computer programmers in the numbers that we are seeing now.”

Speaking honestly, everybody is behind… Silicon Valley has historically been well-positioned in software, but even there you have a talent war

“We are competing with everyone else from a tech perspective,” agrees Mary Reardon, Head of Talent Acquisition at Continental. The so-called megasupplier has numerous locations throughout Michigan, and in 2018 announced it was ‘realigning for future mobility’. “As an automotive industry, we are always going to need our mechanical and electrical engineers, but we will probably see a growing mix of individuals in future. Who knows what the next hot technical skill will be in five years from now.”

Get in early

With seasoned experts in high demand, part of the talent acquisition challenge could be eased at a grass-roots level. The institute plans to launch a Master of Mobility degree in 2021, a qualification that will run in partnership with select universities, and based directly on industry requirements. “We think it’s something the industry needs,” said Robinson.

Research carried out in tandem with Boston Consulting Group found that the development of AVs and EVs could create 100,000 US-based jobs over the next decade. Around 30,000 of those positions could be filled by engineers with degrees in computer-related subjects. The education system needs to put future mobility on the table as an attractive career path to ensure a steady stream of entrants into these roles.

“We do not plan to be an accredited university, but we are in conversation with a number of schools that have engineering or computer science programmes to talk about how we could work together,” continued Robinson. “These are schools within Michigan, outside Michigan, and even outside of the country, to make sure their students are well-positioned.”

Will we have dedicated mobility engineers in future? Yes, I think so

Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, for example, runs a degree in cyber security, covering everything from the fundamentals of computer operating systems, all the way to detailed network perimeter protection strategies. For someone that has been embedded in the mobility space for years, even Robinson is surprised at the rate of change within the automotive industry. The prospect of a legitimate qualification in mobility ten years ago may well have been laughable. “I do not think we were even talking about mobility [back then],” she mused.

Robinson pointed to early trends seen in the aviation space as an indication of the importance of specialised training. Leading schools such as Stanford and MIT almost closed their aerospace engineering programmes following World War II, she recalled, as demand for passenger air travel did not pick up as hoped. However, airline companies convinced faculties to retain their programmes and continue training future experts. The future mobility space could follow a similar trajectory. “We need to continue investing in this engineering talent—we didn’t have dedicated aerospace engineers before then. Will we have dedicated mobility engineers in future? Yes, I think so.”

The Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development is looking to prepare students for positions in ‘high tech’ fields such as cyber security and advanced engineering; it expects around 545,000 jobs to open up through to 2026—jobs that “employers are in desperate need to fill,” it says.

This article appeared in the Q3 2019 issue of M:bility | Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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