Southeast Michigan can dominate auto industry with style

Posted on March 5, 2014

A group of more than 150 CEOs and executives from auto supplier firms gathered in Macomb County last week to plot a strategy that would give the county and southeast Michigan an even more prominent role in the research and design of the next generation of American-made automobiles.

Those who attended the forum at Villa Penna in Sterling Heights learned that Michigan already features 370 research and development centers, including dozens in Macomb County, that represent a whopping 70 percent of all U.S. auto research dollars.

Nigel Francis, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s senior automotive adviser, said Michigan has the technology and the talent to strengthen its hold on the auto industry while times are good among the primary automakers.

“To a large extent, retaining current assets is as much a marketing and public relations problem as it is a policy issue,” Francis said.

Michigan has still failed to wipe away its “Rust Belt” image and must promote the engineers and cutting-edge technology experts that make the state and the Detroit metro area so valuable to the industry.

Francis said that each vehicle produced has the equivalent of 25 unique computers on board, proving Michiganders can write software as well as anyone on the West Coast. Borrowing a theme from Macomb’s historic defense industry, Francis suggested thinking of 21st Century Michigan as the “Arsenal of Innovation.”

Glenn Stevens of MICHauto said his organization is working to advance the automotive business in Michigan on all fronts – suppliers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and other companies in the “autosphere.” Technology and styling have become southeast Michigan’s forte.

In addition to Francis and Stevens, those who took part in a panel discussion and question-and-answer session with the audience included County Executive Mark Hackel, Tom Manganello of Warner, Norcross and Judd, and Mike Beck of international supply firm Fori Automation.

The chief sponsor of the event was Warner, Norcross and Judd, Michigan’s third-largest law firm with 220 attorneys specializing in corporate law and with locations in Clinton Township and across the state.

Participants in the panel discuss agreed that talent tops the list of auto-related firms’ needs and addressing that issue will mean breaking the “brain drain” cycle in Michigan. Though the state has a highly trained workforce, thousands of talented engineers and graduates from Michigan universities with skills coveted by the auto world have left the state.

Those attending the forum acknowledged that graduating students show little interest in manufacturing industry jobs, unlike previous generations.

To grow the state’s talent pool, Francis said that “all the cards are on the table” — K-12 education, university outreach, special vocational programs and even potential tax incentives to retain engineers.

Those participating in the Sterling Heights forum included (left to right): Nigel Francis, the Snyder administration’s senior auto adviser; Mike Beck of Fori Automation; and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.