In the process of establishing the Detroit Mobility Lab, Jessica Robinson says she’s interviewed “dozens and dozens” of local mobility leaders who’ve all brought up the same concern: a lack of local talent with the specialized skills to fill their industry’s needs.
So in January, the Detroit Mobility Lab announced plans to offer a first-of-its-kind Master of Mobility degree starting in 2021. Working with local universities and industry, the nine- to 12-month program will offer a high-level educational credential in mobility through the brick-and-mortar Michigan Mobility Institute.
“We said, ‘You know what? This has come up enough. It’s time to do something about it,'” says Robinson, the institute’s executive director.
The Master of Mobility degree is just one example of the innovative ways metro Detroit’s higher educational institutions are working to create new curriculum, programs, and collaborations that address the mobility industry’s need for talent.
“It’s a major shift,” says Samir Tout, professor of information assurance at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). “However, the good news is that it really compels us to open up new types of educational avenues for our students.”
Courses, certificates, and degrees
Those new educational avenues vary from institution to institution. Washtenaw Community College (WCC) has deployed a wide range of mobility training efforts since it opened its Advanced Transportation Center in 2012. The center offers a wide variety of mobility-related programs for college credit, including certificates and associate degrees, as well as shorter workforce training courses. WCC students can take advantage of educational tools like the college’s mobile hacking workbench, which simulates the communications systems of a modern vehicle.
“We really wanted to be a leader in this whole connected space – not necessarily the vehicle itself, but the vehicle and the infrastructure to which it relates,” says Michelle Mueller, WCC’s vice president of economic, community, and college development. “Everything is being affected by this technology. Absolutely everything.”
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s (UMTRI) work in mobility research is well-known, but the University of Michigan (U-M) itself doesn’t yet offer mobility-specific degrees. However, UMTRI marketing and communications director Francine Romine says mobility topics have made their way into diverse fields of study at the university. U-M’s school of engineering offers multiple courses on connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV), and the law school now offers courses dealing with the unique legalities of CAV as well.
While it’s unlikely that any U-M student will be taking both a legal course and an engineering course on CAV any time soon, Mueller and Robinson both say a multidisciplinary approach is key to mobility training. Robinson says the Michigan Mobility Institute will develop people who “have kind of a tinkerer approach to technology.”
“I think that’s reflective of the state of art within mobility right now,” she says. “Most of these things are not production-scale, where we’re churning out hundreds of thousands of units. They are still in development and they will be for some time to come.”
At EMU, Tout recently submitted proposals for two new classes related to vehicle cybersecurity, which he says are just the beginning of a larger plan to expand mobility-related course offerings. But just as important is the work he’s done to begin connecting EMU students to the mobility industry. He’s already forged a partnership with automotive software company Elektrobit, which funded auto security research projects he and his students worked on last semester. They then exhibited those projects at the North American International Auto Show in January.
Tout says that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He’s working on developing relationships with other mobility-related companies to create more practical learning opportunities for his students. Industry connections are key to WCC and the Michigan Mobility Institute’s efforts as well. Mueller says business leaders sit on many of WCC’s advisory boards. The college has also made an effort to plug into the local mobility industry by working with MICHauto, the American Center for Mobility, and the Center for Automotive Research.
“You’ve got to be tied to industry,” Mueller says. “Being part of what they’re doing gives you great access to know what’s happening and to be able to respond appropriately.”
Robinson sees industry as an integral part of the Michigan Mobility Institute’s work as well. Multiple local and national mobility industry leaders were recently announced as the institute’s first advisory board members. She anticipates that relationship being a two-way street, with the institute giving back to industry in more ways than just developing new talent.
“There will be both an ample opportunity and a real demand for people who are going through these programs to do project-based work at some of the companies that we have here in the region,” Robinson says. “You can envision it one day in the way that a group of business students might be deployed today on a project in partnership with one of these companies.”
Building on skills
One might assume that all this training is aimed primarily at area youth, but Robinson says they’re not necessarily the target demographic.
“There’s a lot of investment in our youth in the region through STEM programs, through schools, but also through extracurricular activity,” she says. “There’s a lot of robotics clubs and programming now. So we’re really optimistic that that sets us up for success for our young folks in school and as they start their careers.”
Instead, she envisions the typical Master of Mobility candidate as someone who already works in the auto industry, has a four-year degree, and is interested in bolstering their skills to transition into a new automotive era. Mueller echoes that sentiment, noting that WCC will continue to focus its efforts both on for-credit courses in mobility-related topics as well as professional development opportunities for the “incumbent workforce.” She notes that numerous Ph.D. holders take advantage of WCC’s offerings.
“Sometimes people think at the community college you just have these people taking classes who are just trying to get their first entry-level job or get into a university,” she says. “That isn’t necessarily true. There’s a lot of people that have degrees and they just want to get an additional skill set.”
Although higher education institutions have done a lot to fill the gap in focused skills development for mobility, Tout says they still have a long way to go. The key, he says, will be working together.
“We should realize that what we’re dealing with is a huge skill gap, a huge shortage in those workers who will fill the jobs of tomorrow that are quite demanding in terms of technical skills,” he says. “That really is quite a compelling reason for us to work together and try to prepare, to join curricula, and to co-plan to a certain extent.”
Photos by Steve Koss