In Michigan, a future where cars count less
High-wage jobs will come from focusing on human capital, not the Big Three.
It's Wednesday evening, and the west campus of Lansing Community College is humming with activity.
In one lab, students test their electrical skills. In another, they learn computer-aided design. On the main level, instructors and regional industry officials are discussing how to nurture the next generation of manufacturing workers.
It's a key question for America and, especially, for Michigan, as US carmakers pare domestic production. The state has faced job slumps before, most notably in the 1980s. But this downturn is different. The auto industry can no longer carry the state's economy.
Recovery will depend on "human capital," experts say, developing talent that ranges from PhD research to the professional skills taught in evening classes here at this new facility.
Signs of trouble abound. The North American International Auto Show, which runs through this weekend in Detroit, featured its first Chinese car, from a company called Geely. Few expect it to rival Chevy at US car lots in the next few years, but neither does the industry doubt China's will to compete.
Geely's ambition to sell a car in the US in 2008 comes amid a sober backdrop of global competition, marked by US plant closings, job cuts, and sinking wages.
"In recent years, Michigan has led the nation in unemployment," former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt said in a recent speech in Chicago. "Our largest city, Detroit, now ranks as the nation's poorest. We've already seen one of our major corporations, Delphi, file for bankruptcy, with great concern about whether its parent, General Motors, and then possibly Ford, may soon follow."
All this doesn't mean that Michigan can't remain the capital of the global car industry - at least in terms of research and design, if not production, experts say. But retaining that title will take effort.
"There's still this cultural hangover from a different era, when you could get a good job without a postsecondary education," says John Austin, a Brookings Institution scholar who focuses on the future of the Great Lakes region. "That era is over."