This story was published on Mlive.com on April 18, 2018, and written by Paula Gardner. Click here to view the original publication as it appears on Mlive.com and to view the full photo gallery featuring WCC’s Advanced Transportation Center.
Numbers show what’s happening with Michigan’s manufacturing jobs: the state lost nearly 70,000 of them in a decade.
Yet the sector remains vital for Michigan, experts say, as technology and automotive sectors converge into mobility.
And in between stand thousands of unfilled jobs that fall into the gap as the state looks at its automotive employment and considers what it needs to keep its edge as a national leader.
The differentiator: job skills.
There’s how Emily Hatsigeorgiou is finding stability for her young family.
Two years after starting in the automotive program at Washtenaw Community College, she’s ready to double her previous pay and aim for a four-year engineering degree while she works a new job at General Motors.
“I know I have skills and I know that I have value, and I have job security because of that,” Hatsigeorgiou said as she described her trajectory from new auto tech student to near-graduate of Washtenaw Community College.
But at WCC, the term “auto tech” is taking on a new meaning from traditional images of that career field – much as advanced manufacturing elements are re-making the world of auto production.
WCC’s Advanced Transportation Center offers course work in intelligent transportation systems, light weight materials manufacturing and advanced automotive service and repair.
It’s the kind of program cited by Gov. Rick Snyder as essential for Michigan’s future. Students in each segment are exposed to the high-tech developments reshaping the auto industry – and its employment, as it sheds low-skill, high-wage jobs.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be manufacturing jobs, said Al Lecz, director of WCC’s Advanced Transportation Center.
“I’m optimistic jobs are not going to be lost,” Lecz said. “They’re going to change. The nature of the jobs is going to change with the technology.”
The Advanced Transportation Center is an example of how WCC has aggressively positioned itself to fill the jobs void and create or remake programs that prepare students for future job shifts. In the meantime, says Brandon Tucker, dean of advanced technologies at the school near Ann Arbor, “they’re also the jobs of today.”
The community college has invested at least $9 million, thanks in part to state grants, to purchase updated equipment that its business advisors say is in use across industry in Southeast Michigan. The region already is a hub for automotive development and engineering, and it will increase its expertise in new realms as the American Center for Mobility builds its foothold in the region.
Beyond the center’s future development, Tucker said, business leaders say too many jobs in automotive need specific skills that are hard to find.
“(The workforce) in the current industry needs to upskill to stay relevant, stay competitive and get promotions,” he said.
WCC takes a multi-track approach to create opportunities in its career tech program.
Some of it involves courses specific for employers as they pursue training programs. The rest is about creating course work that leads to a certificate or associate’s degree while exposing a student to many disciplines.
Employers, Tucker said, don’t just want a technician who can do one task, like track a vehicle’s performance on a dynamometer. They might want that person to weld part of the car back together after testing. Or a tech trained to repair infotainment systems may also benefit from a programming class to understand how it works.
Hatsigeorgiou’s path to WCC came after she decided not to go to college after high school. Soon after graduation, she married and had two sons, now 7 and 5. She owned a restaurant for a while, and worked in retail.
After her divorce, she moved to her parents’ home, and worked at a credit union. Earning $26,000 per year didn’t allow her to live with her sons on her own, she said, and she looked for options.
Eventually, she decided to follow her father’s path into automotive repair. She’ll finish the auto technician program in May, then will start at GM in June.
She now knows how to repair brakes. She can remove an engine. She can read a dynamometer during testing.
But her job isn’t in a garage; it’s in a research and development center.
Hatsigeorgiou will earn more than $50,000 per year starting wage as a hydraulic safety technician, testing vehicle safety and crash worthiness at the Milford Proving Grounds. She’ll set up the simulated crashes and records results.
“I work one-on-one with engineers, interpreting data to report back to them,” she said.
Lecz says that’s typical among the students coming out of WCC’s programs, where technicians may build prototypes or work with sensors on connected vehicles.
Tucker said while community colleges may once have trained students to run machines, that’s not relevant today – automation is taking care of that. Entry-level courses may teach a student, instead, to set up the machines. More advanced classes teach them to program the robots, or troubleshoot.
“The manufacturing of today is not our grandfathers’ manufacturing,” Tucker said. “It’s clean labs and computer-aided.”
He continued: “(Students need) to understand a computer. Then read data and analyze it. It’s a much different situation than we had in the past.”
So far, growth in the program is coming at about 10 percent for each of the last two years, bringing enrollment in the program to 210 students. Another 200 are in the auto service program, while 280 are in welding and fabrication – including working at the school’s 22 3-dimensional printers, comprising the largest educational 3D printing lab in the state.
What that means for Michigan is that hundreds of people are taking steps toward careers that will help them earn middle class wages of at least $40,000 to $60,000 per year.
It also puts more of the state’s residents on a path toward the post-high school education that educators and experts say is crucial for the state to increase its productivity and job attraction. Many will move on to four-year degrees, cited as the greatest predictor of prosperity.
Hatsigeorgiou sees those benefits. But that’s not all that’s driving her.
She looks back on jobs where she “felt overworked and underpaid,” she said. “… Mentally, that takes a toll.”
Stepping into a field where she had no experience resulted in opportunities that she never dreamed possible: Trips to conferences, meeting mentors, collaborating with new teams.
The fulfillment crept up on her. So did the passion. “It’s ever-changing, always evolving, never boring,” she said.
Embracing that change makes the difference for her. It’s coming either way, Hatsigeorgiou said, “so you might as well.”
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