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Retooling a Pool of Talent: Michigan Reaches Out from Brawn to Brains

Diego Rivera’s famous mural of Detroit’s industry depicts big, muscular men pulling on steel and manipulating heavy machines as they mold new cars. But if Rivera were here today, how would he see the city? Probably not muscling steel girders around. He’d see MBAs and computer geeks creating the modern automotive world in front of their computers.

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From Detroit Free Press

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DETROIT — Diego Rivera’s famous mural of Detroit’s industry depicts big, muscular men pulling on steel and manipulating heavy machines as they mold new cars.

But if Rivera were here today, how would he see the city? Probably not muscling steel girders around. He’d see MBAs and computer geeks creating the modern automotive world in front of their computers.

Once an industrial giant, Michigan in recent years has been shifting its economy from a reliance on brawny automotive jobs to more research and science positions. But now, with more manufacturing jobs at risk than ever before, the push toward technology-oriented jobs has become urgent.

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“Detroit is becoming the idea city of the car,” said Robert Lang, director and associate professor of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. “Even if manufacturing cars has been displaced throughout the world, that doesn’t mean Detroit will lose its role in influencing the automotive world.”

Lang compares the auto industry in Michigan to to the movie industry in Los Angeles. Although Hollywood’s back lots have been abandoned for on-location shots, directors have to return to Los Angeles for major work such as editing and other post-production jobs.

The same might be true of Detroit, Lang said. “Every year it may slip in production, but it could strengthen itself by the knowledge of automotive.”

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This month ground was broken in three Michigan cities for projects that will essentially become research hives employing researchers, scientists and, in one case, people to help launch new businesses.

Hyundai America broke ground April 16 on a $117-million technical center in Superior Township. The center will conduct emissions testing, engineering, research, development and design for Hyundai and Kia autos. It is expected to be completed in mid-2005 and will replace Hyundai’s operations in Pittsfield Township.

Three days later, Automation Alley broke ground on a new headquarters in Troy. Automation Alley is a consortium of almost 500 businesses operating in southeastern Michigan. The building, which will be completed by August, will house the administrative offices of the organization while supplying start-up assistance to entrepreneurs in business development and sales.

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The following day, Gov. Jennifer Granholm was in Detroit for the opening of TechTown, a research and tech park at Wayne State University. TechTown’s first building, TechOne, is in the renovated 440 Burroughs, once General Motors ‘ Chevrolet Creative Services Building. The fifth floor of TechOne will house a combination of wet and dry labs and offices geared for life sciences companies.

Hyundai’s Superior Township location countered expectations that it would build its tech center next to its plant in Alabama.

“We are going to go from 43 engineers to 400 by 2010, (so) where is the best place to find the talent?” Hyundai spokesman Chris Hosford asked. “Sure, we could have gone to Mississippi. The University of Mississippi is a good school, but who knows more about the business? The University of Mississippi or the University of Michigan? Who attracts people who have a passion about this business?”

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Kim Hill, assistant director of the economic and business group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said, “If you are an automotive engineer aspiring to further your career, the place to be is in southeast Michigan.”

“The more venues you have for these types of people, the more places they can go. It creates this swirling pool.” It’s a swirling pool requiring more education and offering higher pay.

Charles Chambers, Lawrence Tech University president and chief executive, said 25 years ago, the university offered only associate degrees.

“Twenty years ago we offered bachelor degrees, 15 years ago we offered master’s degrees and now we offer doctorate degrees,” he said. “There will still be manufacturing, but Michigan is becoming the place that adds value, not just builds things.”

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High-tech workers in 2003 earned an average wage of $65,341 or 74 percent more than the average private-sector wage in the state, a recent report by the American Electronics Association says. Nationwide, Michigan ranked third in research and development and testing labs employment with 42,200 jobs, the association says. Companies operating automotive research centers in Michigan besides General Motors Corp., Chrysler Group and Ford Motor Co. are Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Suzuki and Isuzu . Numerous automotive suppliers such as Lear Corp., TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. and Robert Bosch Corp. operate their own research centers to improve and develop new products.

Lang said city and business leaders are making the right moves to support new business opportunities. “New York used to be the place where businesses wanted to be headquartered,” he said. “A lot of those business have moved out, but now New York specializes in the services such as finance, law and insurance. Even if a company has left, it still has to go back to New York.”

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Michigan has already seen some spin-off business. Underwriters Laboratories Inc. opened a testing facility in Novi in December 2002, and U.S. Steel Corp. and electronics maker Motorola Inc. operate centers in the state. “Detroit should be out there gathering up the pieces that make sense to the automotive industry,” Lang said. Underscoring his point was an announcement late last week that India-based Tata Consultancy Services would open an Automotive Center of Excellence in Detroit. The center will provide technology services to North American auto customers.

Copyright 2004 Detroit Free Press. All Rights Reserved.

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