Mobility industry leaders envision “arsenal of mobility” at Detroit auto show panel discussion

This feature is courtesy of Driven, the story of how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 speech that spurred the nation to recognize the need for an arsenal of democracy to support the Allies during WWII was inspiration for a panel discussion called “Arsenal of Mobility” at the North American International Auto Show's AutoMobili-D showcase.

Just as the arsenal of democracy concept referred to the efforts of American industry to support the troops fighting in the war that the U.S. would enter the following year, so does the arsenal of mobility call upon the automotive industry to support the growth and retention of a strong mobility workforce, for the economic strength of the industry, the region, and the people who live here.

The panel discussion, led by Chris Thomas, co-founder and president of Detroit Mobility Lab, focused on key points related to building the right strata of skills and opportunities for mobility’s future in Detroit, with a firm line drawn under the role of industry
investment to make this happen. We share wisdom from this panel discussion here.

Detroit is mysterious for job seekers. But it doesn’t have to be.

Alisyn Malek, chief operating officer with Ann Arbor-based May Mobility, shared her experience in a former role in recruitment for a major automaker at Stanford University. She says getting people to move from Palo Alto to Michigan required more than just a promise of a great job.

“We needed to have one-to-one conversations about what it is like living and working here,” says Malek, who participated in the panel discussion. “I had to bring candidates to Ann Arbor and to Royal Oak, which is great. But I also gave private tours of Detroit to get candidates excited.” Recognizing Detroit is a cool place to live, and a region that has lots of opportunities helps, Malek says. This happens only when multiple companies and industries invest in the region.

One new tool that can help demystify Michigan is Let’s Detroit, a Detroit Regional Chamber platform that connects those who are considering a move to work in Detroit’s mobility ecosystem with Detroiters who can answer questions about where to live, eat, find jobs, have fun, and get around.

Automotive is high tech. But how is it perceived?

Michigan automotive accelerator MICHauto conducted two distinct perception surveys to apply real analytics and market research to what students and the business community think about automotive careers. Glenn Stevens, MICHauto executive director, also spent time in California and across Europe to gather perceptions, ultimately to encourage industry and talent to migrate to Detroit.

“It’s all about perception. But the reality is that the vehicle is the most high tech product on the face of the earth, and now it’s at the center of (the internet of things),” Stevens says. “We need to make sure we are connecting people from other places and from other countries to want to come here and work on high tech products that solve global problems, not those that contribute to them.”

Detroit is already the center of expertise for automobility. Let’s recognize that and build on it.

With 17 OEMs and the world’s densest cluster of suppliers, engineers, and assets right here in Michigan, the region is well positioned to build on a higher-tech version of the past century of automotive manufacturing. And we have educational institutions and a workforce willing to train new skills for a new industry. Industry must support the growth of this arsenal. But are companies willing to invest to help existing talent learn the skills to work in mobility? And are they willing to invest in education to usher in a new generation of mobility workers?

“Is there training and the right set of programs that help people transition to new jobs? This is one of the things we have heard. We have the talent but they are not getting the bridge,” says Jessica Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Mobility Institute.

Robinson recognizes that a new type of engineer will help lead mobility companies, suppliers, and OEMs forward, and at the core of their skill set will be systems thinking, rather than the high level of specialization that is suited to efficient output of vehicles on specific timeframes.

“People are wired to think that way, but have not been exposed to new technology,” Robinson explains. “They are on time to deliver in 2021 and 2022, with no extra-curricular development. Future engineers need to be comfortable with software and AI because they will be part of our lives.” Mined from real-world information gained from a field autonomy engineer at May Mobility, Robinson formed a picture of the cluster of tinkering skills needed in future.

“This individual has a background in mechanical engineering, and now he works to understand the patterns of thinking and how the vehicle interacts,” she says. “Not hypothetically, but in the real environment.”

The will to change based on future expectations must exist now, much as it did at the end of WWII, says Robinson.

“After the war, Stanford shut down its aeronautical engineering program. They said no more world war, so we don’t need aircraft in the same way. Alumni who were at Lockheed said ‘Do not stop the aeronautical program!’ And they came in and they invested. We are not there yet as an industry, but I hope we recognize this is a do or die time for us,” Robinson says. “The time is now.”

Changing influencer perceptions is critical, too.

“Automotive companies will say they are tech companies now, and that’s because they are,” says Stevens.

In addition to community college, university, high school, and middle school outreach programs, talent experts are recognizing the value of getting 4th and 5th graders enthused about the high tech aspect of the automotive industry, even if their parents, counselors, and other influencers hold outdated beliefs about what the auto industry is all about.

“We have to look at things differently,” says Stevens. “People will argue that we have to diversify away from automotive. But the best diversification platform we have is automotive.”

Much work needs to be done to change parental perceptions, says Robinson, who talks to parents who admit they love the advances taking place in mobility, but will tell their kids to find a good career elsewhere.

“We have a wonderful place to work, live, and play,” Stevens says. “We have to make sure that kids that grow up here, or people who move here, or the veterans who want to get back into the workforce here, or immigrants who want to come here, that there are opportunities for them and that they know this is an industry that is focused on high tech and growth.”

The mobility mindset is about service, not just products.

Parallel to transportation models are new business models that focus on service and customer support. Auto companies will need to learn how to provide service to customers in order to succeed. Other industries and other regions do this well, but it’s something Detroit needs to learn.

The business of mobility, says Malek, is not manufacturing vehicles, but building and growing ongoing relationships.

“The value is moving away from the vehicle as a sales transaction and toward the experience of moving from point A to point B,” says Malek. “I need my customers to want to pay me every month, and I have a relationship with them. They get to sign up and say I want to keep doing this because it’s valuable to my business.”

Why Detroit as a center of mobility expertise? Because safety.

Why not just do software development in Silicon Valley and hardware development in Detroit? Ultimately, smart mobility suppliers come to Michigan because of the rich safety expertise that is 100 years in the making.

Malek illustrates May Mobility’s case for being in Michigan.

“Our hardware engineers and software engineers sit together. That’s the only way to develop a safe and reliable system,” she says. “Anyone who thinks we can stick software on the coast and cross our fingers has lost their minds and doesn’t understand the nature of this work. This is a huge case for Michigan.”

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