TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Michigan has been a hot spot for major auto projects in the past few months, with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles committing to $4.5 billion in plant investments, and General Motors funding a number of projects at plants in the state. But winning new auto industry spending is about more than factory sites, says Jeff Mason, CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
Michigan recruiter sees ‘no guarantee'
It also requires anticipating what the auto industry will want in the future — and helping make sure the state can attract a work force for that future. Mason spoke with News Editor Lindsay Chappell about Michigan's outlook during an auto industry conference here. Edited excerpts:
Q: Michigan is already home to the mother lode of North America's auto industry. Why bother with automotive recruitment?
A: The facts back you up on that. There was $32 billion in auto sector investment in Michigan over the past 10 years. That was 25 percent of all the automotive investment that occurred in North America. And 91 of the top 100 suppliers have operations in Michigan — 76 of them have their headquarters here.
But just because we've historically been the center of this doesn't mean we will continue to be. We want to make sure Michigan remains a center for the future, including electrification and autonomous vehicles. And there's no guarantee that that's going to happen in Michigan.
How do you make that happen?
We need to focus on future trends. We need to identify and work with startups as well as understand what existing automotive companies are working on. We passed legislation in 2016 that allowed connected and autonomous vehicles to operate on our roads and highways. We now have 300 miles of highway that have been prepared for connected vehicle infrastructure.
Michigan also created what it calls PlanetM to attract auto companies and mobility ventures. What is it?
It's a suite of programs and services to help small startup companies that are looking for introductions to larger suppliers and automakers. We created a landing zone in a WeWork building in downtown Detroit where those companies can set up shop and mingle with larger companies who are looking for new technologies. We're also working with matchmaking to help bring them together.
How critical to industry-recruitment efforts is Detroit's ability to attract young engineering talent?
It's important. The composition of what companies need and want in their engineering staffs is changing now. It's less mechanical engineers and more electrical and software engineers. Young people coming out of college are looking for places to work that are also vibrant and interesting and walkable communities to live in.
That task seems beyond the abilities of an economic development team.
No. Our mission at MEDC is not just business development. It's also community development. We're trying to help communities create appealing places where young people would want to live.
We're doing it in Detroit and in other cities around the state. Through our funding mechanisms, we've been able to invest dollars in the form of loan money to mixed-use developments, to help build housing and apartments in Detroit and elsewhere.
We also have other place-making opportunities called Public Spaces Community Places, which is a crowd-funding program. It will match up to $100,000 for fundraising when a community wants to put in a new park or public arts project, or a trail or a dog park.
Send us a letter
Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.