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Survey: Young workers sour on auto industry jobs, in another blow to Michigan

About half of Michigan young adults don’t consider auto jobs a good career path, according to a new survey. (Shutterstock)
  • Michigan’s auto industry is struggling to attract workers
  • A survey found young adults have some negative perceptions of the industry
  • Car companies’ worker troubles mirror similar problems statewide

Many young adults in Michigan don’t consider the auto industry a good career path and would leave the state for jobs they consider more innovative, according to a new survey.

The survey, released Monday by MICHauto, part of the Detroit Regional Chamber, shows that Michigan’s dominant industry has lingering perception problems even as it undergoes a high-tech revolution to electric and autonomous vehicles.

“We have some work to do with youth, both inside and outside the state,” said Glenn Stevens Jr., vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives for the chamber and executive director of MichAuto, an association representing the industry.

“We know we need talent in the industry, so we need to drive young blood.”

The auto industry, which employs about 175,000 statewide, is struggling to hire and retain workers like many other businesses in Michigan. 

The state has an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, the lowest in 23 years, but is 49th in population growth. A lack of workers makes it tough for businesses to expand and for the state to attract new companies.

Key to reversing that trend is retaining Michigan’s young adults and attracting 20-somethings from other states. About 45 percent of Michiganders who left the state for work-related reasons in recent years were between the ages of 18 and 34, according to the state’s Growing Michigan Together Council, formed to seek solutions to Michigan’s stagnant population.

That’s not going to be easy, according to the auto industry survey. Lambert, a national public relations firm with an office in Grand Rapids, conducted the online survey of 860 adults ages 17-24, primarily in Michigan. 

Among the findings:

  • Young adults link the auto industry to layoffs, long work hours, safety concerns and “physically-demanding” factory work.
  • Young adults rate “work-life balance” as the second-most important factor in a career, just below wages.
  • 29 percent of those same young adults rated the auto industry as better than most careers or excellent for work-life balance.
  • Roughly half do not view the auto industry as an attractive field for young adults, or that it is culturally diverse.
  • About half of young adults are “very” or “definitely” willing to move out of state for a career. 

“It’s such a critical time in the industry,” Stevens said. “We have to drive more talent to the industry.”

To do that, the industry needs to change its image, from the factory floor of the past to the high-tech careers now in demand among auto companies.

“There’s a lot of lack of understanding of what career paths can be in the auto industry,” Stevens said. “The impression of Michigan being a place of innovation has improved, but it’s still second to California.

“What we found (in the survey) is, yes, salaries matter, but (young adults) are also looking to work in industries that solve global issues and not contribute to them” — a pitch that auto companies can make as they switch to electric vehicles. 

“You can work on one of the most high-tech products on the planet, combined with living in a four-season state with high quality of life. That’s the type of message that young people are going to respond to.”

Michigan has formed a commission to study the state’s population problem, particularly the retention and attraction of young adults.

“We are on the cusp of a lot of things happening, but we need to work in concert,” Stevens said. Addressing the worker shortage of the auto industry and the state “is the intersection of government, education and industry,” he said, and will take “the three of them working together.”

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