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Challenges and Opportunities for the Automotive Manufacturing Workforce

Christine Longroy
By Christine Longroy Automotive Industry Manager, SME

For many years, American manufacturing was defined by the might and capability of its automakers and the businesses that manufacture automotive parts and products. While US automakers face more competition today, they remain vital to the American economy. The US is still the world’s largest producer of cars and commercial vehicles. More than 943,000 US workers are employed in auto manufacturing jobs, producing vehicles and parts for the domestic market—and a growing global market. The scale? A total of 17.6 million cars and light trucks were sold in the US in 2016; globally, the value of US auto and parts exports exceeded $147 billion in 2016.

A Workforce Challenge

There is a challenge: Is the available US workforce prepared to maintain and improve the auto industry’s manufacturing expertise? At first glance, it doesn’t seem promising. American manufacturers are experiencing a shortage of capable, prepared workers.

Over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be available, and 2 million are expected to go unfilled due to the skills gap. US leadership in the automotive manufacturing sector is indeed threatened by this lack of skilled talent, an issue exacerbated by the large numbers of experienced workers, in enterprises big and small, that will retire between now and 2030.

A recent SME study asked 300 experts in the US auto industry which issues pose the greatest concern to them as they prepare for the future. More than half expect to lose 20% or more of their workforce due to retiring workers. Three-quarters anticipate major challenges finding the workers they need. One in five survey respondents indicated they are “not sure” how they’ll fill vacated positions.

Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industry, Labor and Economics Group of the Center for Automotive Research (Ann Arbor, MI), said “Demographic and technological trends are critical threats to the US automotive industry’s ability to meet future talent demands. The United States’ automotive leadership position is in jeopardy.”

While some in the automotive manufacturing sector might be contemplating their next steps, other enterprises have pounced, recognizing the challenge and treating it as opportunity. Their efforts to directly influence and shape the future workforce reflect inspiration, passion and vision—and can be embraced by any manufacturer.

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Inspired by the success of the MAT2 apprenticeship program in Michigan, other Brose locations in the region launched their own initiatives, including this Brose Tuscaloosa facility in Alabama.

Community Engagement

Cooper Standard Automotive (Novi, MI) is a global supplier of systems and components for the automotive industry. The firm employs more than 30,000 people globally and operates in 20 countries around the world.

Brigit Anthony, the firm’s vice president of North American engineering, noted that, in addition to an increasing skills gap, automotive manufacturing also faces misperceptions: “Across industry, everyone is fighting for the same resources. We’ve got to communicate that automotive manufacturing has evolved, changed and transformed. Digital factories, advanced analytical tools, new technologies, and autonomous driving to name a few [trends]—there are unique and rewarding opportunities in automotive.”

Cooper Standard Automotive’s approach is multifaceted and broad. It sponsors and holds STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs to engage young people as early as middle school and high school, instructing and illustrating the importance of STEM competencies as well as demonstrating career opportunities. Plants and engineering centers also hold technical events designed to inform and make communities aware that there are future career opportunities at Cooper Standard facilities for workers at all levels, from operators, technicians and skilled trades to engineers and chemists. “The events promote development of the future workforce,” said Anthony, “and the events strengthen our relationships with the community—we’re their partner.”

A Proven Solution

Combining on-the-job training with education, as in co-op programs, internships, and apprenticeships, is an approach once favored by many manufacturers. Today, it is again being embraced by industry. But, with just 506,000 apprentices registered today, the US is far behind other countries. Germany, an economy one-quarter the size of the US, has 1.4 million registered apprentices. The successful German apprenticeship programs, including technical education that accompanies work experience, have helped make the country an international trade superpower. Apprenticeships have paid off.

Brose North America (Auburn Hills, MI), a producer of mechatronic components and systems for the automotive industry, understands the benefit of apprenticeships and maintains ongoing programs at its manufacturing facilities. “We wanted to be proactive so we embraced initiatives to develop our own talent pipeline,” said Mike Brosseau, president of Brose North America. “We were one of the founding companies of the Michigan Advanced Technician Training (MAT2) program.”

MAT2 was developed by the state of Michigan in conjunction with companies like Brose to address the skills gap and the aging manufacturing workforce. Students alternate between classroom instruction and on-the-job training, gaining hands-on skills and the real-world experiences necessary to become a productive member of the workforce.

Brose is increasing its involvement in work/study programs. “Throughout the year, we’ve had more than 200 co-ops, interns and apprenticeships active at our 12 facilities around the region,” said Brosseau. “And this year, we brought in our first high-school-age co-ops, one in mechatronics and one in design.”

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Harman’s Summer 2017 class of interns and co-ops assemble at the organization’s Novi, MI, facility.

Taking Action

Harman International (Stamford, CT) designs and engineers connected products and solutions for automakers, including connected car systems, audio and visual products, enterprise automation solutions, and connected services. Kumari Williams, director of global talent acquisition for Harman, counsels managers and recruiters to look carefully at current and future business priorities to align staffing plans and identify key talent gaps and opportunities.

“Be ambitious and also realistic when searching for the skill sets you need,” Williams said. “Know that everyone is searching for the perfect candidate—qualified, skilled and a cultural fit, ready to hit the ground running. A different approach may be necessary to identify and then connect with the candidates you want.”

Williams endorsed the internship model (Harman employed 140 interns in 2017 throughout the US) as a potential feeder system for entry-level positions, and noted that managers who invest in interns see a strong ROI in terms of creating a learning culture and also preparing future employees. “Less experience may translate into a candidate who can learn, adapt and grow faster,” she noted. “In today’s fast-moving world, where change and flexibility are paramount to success, that kind of development and engagement can be a game changer.”

To learn more, SME members can access the report “Forward Together: Developing Next-Gen Talent for the Automotive Sector” at www.sme.org.

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