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Experts Weigh In: Long-Term Impact of COVID-19 on the Automotive Talent Pipeline

A leading lineup of automotive industry and education experts discussed the long-term talent impact of COVID-19 on the automotive talent pipeline. The two-part discussion hosted by MICHauto in partnership with the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) focused first on both the industry perspective and the workforce development response.

Panel One: Industry Perspective on Talent Impact

Beginning the conversation with reflections on initial impressions of the expected impact of COVID-19, moderator Jerome Vaughn, news director of 101.9 WDET, asked panelists to share what they thought would change back in March and how that aligns with what is happening now. Panelists Eric James of Ford Motor Company, Peter Hungerford of ADAC Automotive Inc., and Renee McLeod of Adient, shared that immediate actions were taken within their global companies, having already been impacted in China and other parts of the globe. However, they concur, longer-term impacts are still developing.

In terms of recruiting and retaining employees, the shift to remote work is impacting how and where to secure the right people for the right jobs. With many technology companies already facing a shortage of skilled trades, software engineers, and technology talent, employers are seeking new options.

“I think one of the most interesting learnings from my perspective is our ability to work remotely. I think that there has been a lot of trial and error in terms of trying to figure out how to be more flexible in our work environment, and this was trial by fire. I think that we came out of it doing quite well,” said MacLeod. “It’s really changed our perspective on the purpose of an office, the purpose of our facilities and it’s going to allow us to be a lot more flexible in terms of where our workforce resides, our footprint. And while it opens up a lot of opportunities from a talent perspective, it also introduces some challenges for us as that need to move and to be physically located in one place becomes less and less important.”

What makes this changing work dynamic harder for recruiting is that, even though the process for recruitment itself has not changed much, integration of new employees into work culture is more time consuming. Hungerford believes that there is a part of this new remote work environment that is very attractive, but it needs to be balanced among those that work in industrial manufacturing as well.

“Finding that balance, trying to make sure that new team members are appropriately welcomed and oriented to the culture, that’s the more significant change,” he said.

A new trend emerging among employers to prepare the next-generation workforce is the virtual internship. With a decrease in college enrollment this year, it is especially important not to disrupt the cycle of talent. James spoke to the importance of adapting to a virtual internship program with 600 interns this past summer.

“We made some modifications but we wanted to provide that experience for those young folks we had made a commitment to almost nine months or a year ago. We surveyed them, we talked to our people leaders on how they do that, and I can tell you, there was an air of maybe we should cancel this year,” said James. “It’s like, well folks, we’re going to lose a whole cycle of talent if we do that. That could be a huge gap for us. So we have to figure out how to adapt, how to embrace it, and we said we’re going to do it.”

When it comes to planning in this time of uncertainty, all three panelists agree that this industry faces continuous change and new challenges. Sticking with your core strategy while also being adaptive as you go is key to steering the organization. One thing that must change, though, is the approach to recruiting, starting to engage younger audiences. Hungerford agreed, saying that the industry needs to get more involved in K-14, supporting a variety of career paths, and providing education assistance for associate degrees by being intentional in getting that next generation of talent interested in those fields.

Panel Two: Workforce Development Perspective on Talent Impact

Introducing the educator and workforce development perspective, Vaughn asked the University of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski, Henry Ford College’s Russ Kavalhuna, and the Michigan Mobility Institute’s Dexter Sullivan, to share their initial reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. It took some time in the education sector for the full impact to be realized as educators worked tirelessly from March through July to transition students to a virtual environment. That impact varied among K-12, graduate, and post-graduate students.

Six months in, educators feel that they are still largely in the dark. Metrics previously used to measure the success of education, like attendance and standardized tests, are no longer feasible to track. There is a large divide between virtual working parents and office workers that impacts their remote K-12 students. Now seeing a substantial drop in community college enrollment, Dynarski said this is troubling because community colleges are traditionally where workers go to wait out recessions and build their skills so that once the upturn comes they are ready to join the workforce. Without this interest in community college right now, the talent pipeline is not as strong as it could be.

Given this challenging situation with our schools, Vaughn asked, what role can government or local organizations play in advancing the talent pipeline and solving this problem existed even before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted? Kavalhuna highlighted what is being done well by the State like Future for Frontliners, in an effort to get more citizens to attain postsecondary education credentials, with a target for the state to increase from 45% to 60% attainment.

“The legislature just passed a budget that funded the Governor’s initial tuition-free college programs, so we’re moving in the right direction as a state by investing in our citizens getting into higher education,” he said. “We’ve got a really good infrastructure here for higher education in the state.”

On the contrary, there remains an opportunity for Michigan to be more competitive with other states when it comes to funding. Dynarski agreed, noting that the state does not have a constitutional means by which to make up the shortfalls in education funding.  The federal government needs to do more as well so that colleges can upgrade technology, obtain testing and tracing resources, and re-open in a careful and gradual way.