Community college sharpens focus on advanced technology courses

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Eric Gannaway, a senior sales executive at Siemens, has his pitch ready.

The German supplier has business in every nook and cranny of the transportation business. It builds software and components intended for lunar vehicles. It connects cars with safety-critical communication systems. It develops multimodal payment apps.

In terms of a career path and variety in work, “I think we offer the best opportunity of any manufacturer out there,” Gannaway said.

His audience was students at Washtenaw Community College, who milled around last week at the school’s first-ever job fair dedicated to linking students with companies seeking workers in the advanced transportation and mobility realms. Siemens was one of a dozen or so companies, including Aerotek, Aisin and TekWissen, participating in the event.

Not long ago, students interested in automotive careers at the two-year college would have studied welding and gone on to become repair technicians. Some are still seeking those skills, but Washtenaw is rapidly pivoting its automotive offerings to prepare students for the mobility-era work force demands of the industry.

Later the same day, Wayne State University in Detroit said it was collaborating with the Michigan Mobility Institute to craft a graduate-level study program that would confer master’s degrees in mobility. That program is tentatively slated to start enrolling students in 2021, but officials are hopeful they can accelerate those plans.

Even as companies such as General Motors and Ford Motor Co. eliminate thousands of white-collar jobs, automakers and suppliers say they cannot find enough qualified workers for skilled positions. Officials with both schools say curriculum changes are needed so graduates can fill the changing labor needs of the region’s automotive employers.

“The reality is, this is not your grandparents’ or parents’ auto industry,” said Brandon Tucker, dean of Washtenaw’s advanced technology and public service careers division. “So we’re exposing students to that and sparking interest.”

There’s fresh focus on subjects such as lightweighting, electrification and cybersecurity. There’s a new robotics lab and a 3D-printing lab that Tucker boasts is the largest in the state.

A new chassis dynamometer in the school’s garage rounds out a $9 million equipment and infrastructure overhaul that started in 2015. That’s when the school started working more closely with an industry advisory board and formed the Advanced Transportation Center, an umbrella unit that houses the repair service, intelligent transportation and advanced manufacturing programs.

“Employers don’t care about the degree,” Tucker said. “Employers care about the skills.”

And schools need to ensure students can work across disciplines rather than specialize in one.

“The idea of just being a mechanical engineer or an electrical engineer is somewhat passe,” said Valerie Sathe Brugeman, assistant director at the Center for Automotive Research’s Transportation Systems Analysis Group. “You need to be well-rounded and know all those spaces to understand the system. Someone with systems knowledge, as well as someone who is nimble.”

For the last two years, Washtenaw has sent six interns to work in GM’s crash-test lab, and six recent graduates are working at Toyota Motor Corp., which has offices in the area. Siemens uses Ann Arbor as its flagship test bed for connected-vehicle technology. With the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory also in town, Nissan Motor Co.’s tech center nearby and Detroit less than an hour away, school officials sense the groundwork is in place.

“The opportunities here are so vast, and everyone here is trying to wrap their hands around that,” said Cheryl Harvey, director of career transitions at Washtenaw, who organized the inaugural job fair. “It is just starting to take hold.”