What are the jobs of Michigan’s future? Here’s what our leaders see

As the technology revolution continues to unfold with robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D imaging and shifts in mobility spawning massive change for Michigan’s businesses, leaders here are working overtime to make sure young people are ready for jobs of the future.

At the same time firms are grappling with the ongoing talent gap and baby boomers aging out, which makes this issue even dicier.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been talking about “closing the damn skills gap” as she’s overhauled the state’s workforce development department and called for more K-12 and community college funding. She also unveiled a campaign to help employers fill an estimated 545,000 skilled-labor jobs opening up through 2026.

Whitmer is among leaders, educators, CEOs, community champions, parents and students I talked to who appear in the TV special “Eye on the Future: Gearing up for Jobs of Tomorrow” scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 28, on CBS 62.

“We did ourselves a disservice by talking about four-year degrees as the only path to prosperity, unwittingly devaluing others,” Whitmer said. “It’s important to recognize that there is dignity and prosperity in a variety of lines of work and that there is opportunity for everyone who seeks it out.”

Children, younger and older, need mentoring
Whether in skilled trades or white collar jobs, coming from an urban or rural part of the state, providing internships and mentoring is central to exposing children and young people to jobs.

“We’ve got to do more to provide opportunities particularly in under-served communities,” said Ric DeVore, PNC regional president for Detroit and southeast Michigan. He’s also a trustee at Oakland University.

PNC is among corporations supporting Winning Futures, a nonprofit organization started in 1994 by the late auto dealer Sam Cupp. He wanted to give area high school students career experiences and expose them to jobs — something he felt was lacking in his own life.

It’s just one of many programs across our state creating hands-on experiences and exposure to careers.

Health Alliance Plan, Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow and Magna International took part at a recent Winning Futures session at Warren Mott High School as students got a chance to work with robotics and more. Employees from those companies worked with the students.

Kris Marshall, who runs Winning Futures, was in the program’s inaugural class while a student at Mott High in 1994.

“Winning Futures and other programs like it are important because we teach students critical skills that help them transform into self-reliant, employable, productive and happy adults,” she said. “We help young people build their self-confidence, explore careers, determine the education path that is the right fit for them, and develop the soft skills and job readiness skills they will need.”

Considering many children entering kindergarten will work in jobs that simply don’t exist yet, thanks to technology, the need to be nimble and adaptable will be key in the frenetic 21st century.

This is why Keith Young, a dad and businessman, launched Ecotek lab in Detroit. He came up with the idea as he didn’t think his own children were learning the right skills from local schools to become successful in this entrepreneurial- and technology-focused world.

Young’s vision: providing opportunities by opening labs for students who want to find a scientific solution to real world problems. His students are working on issues involving robotics, 3D printing, drones and finding solutions to health concerns. He works with other labs and universities, too.

As word of Ecotek lab grew, parents in metro Detroit began to sign their children up and Young now also has labs in Florida, Maryland and Canada. He’s worked with hundreds of children since starting in 2005.

“I think Michigan is doing OK (on educating young people) but there are some glaring problems in STEM education, career path design, investment models for new industries and the development of a STEM creative community in metro Detroit,” Young said. “Students of color are still far behind in having access to opportunities in research and innovation.”

Embracing diversity
Providing career experiences has been on Mary Barra’s radar. As chairman and CEO of General Motors, and also being one of the highest ranking female executives on the planet, Barra is focused on the automaker’s talent needs, which is embracing diversity on a pragmatic scale.

“You don’t need a background in calculus to understand that we are underserving our communities, customers and ourselves by building a tomorrow without diversity,’ Barra said. “GM fills a STEM-related position every 26 minutes, and since only one-third of the talent pool are women, it’s clear we have work to do. We’re intensifying our efforts to develop tomorrow’s STEM leaders because driving the future of mobility will depend on a deep and diverse talent pool that better reflects the people who buy our products and services.”

Andra Rush, CEO of Rush Group, which includes Rush Trucking and Dakkota Integrated Systems, is seeing technology affecting her business with drones starting to deliver products and automation changing manufacturing at her plants.

Rush was worried about the future of skilled trades when we talked about talent needs.

“We have a big gap in how we are exposing young people to jobs of the future,” Rush said.

Her company is providing opportunities to hundreds of young people through initiatives like Manufacturing Day, where children visit one of her facilities to learn about advanced manufacturing jobs and other careers.

Her firm has also been involved with helping returning veterans.

Blake Siefker, a Marine who served in Iraq, came back to Michigan with plans of pursuing a career in criminal justice. Instead, the 32-year-old decided to follow his late father’s footsteps (he was an executive of a trucking company) and revamped his game plan.

Siefker gained new skills thanks to the Rush Trucking’s training program and now works as a safety coordinator making sure drivers and trucks are adhering to guidelines.

“I have friends who went to college, got their degree and a lot of college debt. And they aren’t even working in their profession” because there aren’t any jobs, Siefker said.

Hoffa: Talk up skilled trades
James P. Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, has seen his union’s numbers grow as they have expanded membership beyond truck drivers to include airline pilots, mechanics, pipeline workers and more.

“Not everyone is going to college but there are so many jobs where you don’t need a college degree,” Hoffa said. “Jobs in trucking and skilled trades where you can make a six-figure salary and benefits and have a good life. We need to do more to talk that up for young people.

“Someone will still be needed to fix the automated machinery of the future when it breaks down.”

Dave Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer at DTE Energy, is paying close attention to his company’s talent needs.

“Over 50% of our workforce is eligible to retire in the next five years,” he said.

At the same time the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2026, out of the 20 fastest growing occupations, the top two spots will belong to the energy sector.

That’s why DTE has been teaming up with community colleges, the state, unions and more.

Young people are hearing about these programs and raising their hands.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn these skills and know I’ll have a job (when his training is done) and won’t have any debt,” said Kelly Williams of Detroit, who joined DTE’s apprentice lineman training program this year.

Technology is also shaping how educators are teaching.

Biology students at Oakland University are using new technology as they work on projects, including water quality tests at its Biological Preserve on its Rochester Hills campus. The preserve covers 110 acres and contains forests, meadows, streams and wetlands.

Concern about climate change, the environment and impact on health is something more young people are considering as career options.

“For example, the (water sample) testing they are doing on-site and getting immediate results on is something that used to take days or weeks when I was starting out,” Scott Tiegs, a biology professor at Oakland University, told me as he stood knee deep in a stream working alongside students.

“It’s a brave new world.”