Driven – Mobility Moments: Ben Cruz, Center for Advanced Automotive Technology at Macomb Community College
Driven – Mobility Moments: Ben Cruz, Center for Advanced Automotive Technology at Macomb Community College

With the rise in autonomous vehicle technologies comes the need for a workforce with skills to meet the design, development, and manufacturing needs of the Detroit region’s mobility ecosystem.

Having a properly skilled technical workforce is critical to the future of Michigan mobility.

That was Ben Cruz, director at the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology, or CAAT, at Macomb Community College. He’s my guest today on Driven’s Mobility Moments podcast, where we talk with the people building the mobility ecosystem in the Detroit region.

Listen in as Cruz shares some of the ways CAAT is preparing the next-generation mobility talent force. I’m your host, Claire Charlton.

Ben, hello and welcome to Driven’s Mobility Moments podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Ah, thank you Claire. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Wonderful. You are the director of the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology at Macomb Community College. I’m hoping … You have an interesting background. Can you tell me a little bit about your previous career, and how it prepared you for this role as director?

Why, sure. I have a Bachelor of Science in engineering, an MBA in industrial management, and most of my working career was actually spent at General Motors. Actually, I held a number of different positions, starting with my co-op assignment while still at Arizona State University. My assignments included things like vehicle design, vehicle development, test and product validation, for many years, actually, throughout those assignments.

Then, the assignment actually took me to Mexico, where I actually developed and constructed test facilities and laboratories for vehicle development in Mexico.


After a number of years there, I made my way back to the [GM] Tech Center again. My final assignment before retirement actually took about 15 years. It was to basically develop, design, build, run, validate a full vehicle simulation test center at the Warren Technical Center.

The one thing that I noted throughout my career, throughout all of the assignments is that I worked extensively with hundreds of engineers and technicians, from various disciplines, and the one thing that really stuck in my mind was that, quite often, the experienced, higher skilled technicians were often the anchors of the laboratories, often training a lot of the engineers that were hired year, to year, to year. Engineers at laboratories in other areas come and go, because they obviously move up, but the technician is basically the remaining anchor in that facility.

So the technician has the nuts and bolts knowledge that engineers don’t necessarily have, when they come to that particular center?

That is correct.

Let’s talk a little bit about the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology, I think you call it CAAT. Let’s talk a little bit about what CAAT is.

OK. CAAT is basically an organization, a center that was actually formed with NSF funding. It actually was funded for creating the center, back in 2010. Roughly $7 million, over the years, was awarded to Macomb, to basically create the center, sustain the center, and support the center for the number of years that we’ve had it.

The CAAT provides a spectrum of educational opportunities to meet the expanding workforce needs of the automotive industry, in advanced automotive technologies, including vehicle electrification, automated and connected vehicles, materials light-weighting, and also vehicle design.

Basically, we have four primary goals. These goals are to advance the preparation of skilled automotive technicians, engineering technologists and designers for the automotive industry. We collaborate with industry, education, government, professional associations, and basically to glean and drive skills needed for the next generation of technicians. We’re also created to be a regional resource for developing and disseminating automotive technology, through educational programming and materials. We’re also here to increase the awareness and understanding of advanced automotive technology, as it applies to the educational communities.

So that last role that you mentioned is pretty key, isn’t it? Because there are alternatives. I think that when students say, “Oh, I’d really love to work in automotive, but you know what? I don’t really want to be an engineer.” Or, “I don’t want to commit my time, necessarily, to the amount of education that a mechanical engineer, for example, might need to pursue.” Can we talk a little bit about what sort of roles that CAAT is uncovering, and supporting for that particular segment of the automotive industry?

Yes. Basically, what we do is, again, we visit our partners, our industry partners. Part of my role, part of my job is basically to go ahead and talk to, visit, communicate with a variety of organizations, including a lot of the industry, a lot of the companies. I go to many different companies, and basically talk to the senior managers, the laboratories, the directors, to see what exactly is needed in their facility.

The idea is basically to put together programs, put together courses, and content, so that we can train our technician base. As a community college, we get students from various disciplines, various pints in their lives, and some of them only want to be mechanics, some of them only want to be skilled in order to get a livable wage, a livable job. Others do want to use Macomb as a stepping stone, to be able to go a little bit higher, to go get Bachelors, a Masters.

What we do is basically take a look at all of the companies that we visited, and put together programs so that we can offer some of these programs to our students, so we can offer those things that they are looking for. Some of them, like I said, are quite happy to be technicians, and to that end, we do have an automotive program that focuses on service and repair. But, in addition to that, we have other programs that focus more on engineering, development, and design. These are the much higher skilled trades, or skills, that a technician, or an individual can get, yet not invest the time necessary to be an actual engineer.

That’s not to say that we don’t encourage our students to complete an associate [degree], and then go onto a higher learning institution to get a bachelor’s, and even a master’s, because that happens also. But, the primary goal is to try to capture these students, at an entry level position, so that we train them to be able to do the high skilled jobs. Then, we try to give them the new technologies, we try to teach them about the advances in technologies. Things like automated and connected vehicles, things like the electrification process that’s going on with vehicles.

For example, we put together a program here with Fiat Chrysler, and the program that we put together is a co-op internship program where we actually teach the students four days a week, and then the students actually do a co-op, working at Fiat Chrysler as supervisors, line supervisors. The idea is basically to give these people a higher skill, to be able to be more than just a line worker, to be able to be the supervisor of a line, or a group, at one of the manufacturing plants.

So it’s a perfect way for students to have classroom learning, and then spend a day a week working in a supervisory role so that they can understand the inner workings of that particular automotive production line?

That is correct.

So interesting. I imagine that, throughout your career, you’ve seen so many changes in automotive development. It’s ramping up now because, as more electrification, and ADAS, and autonomous vehicle technologies enter the automotive development marketplace, the skills change for the students that are looking to get into working with the automotive industry. So, I’d imagine that the conversations that you have with your industry partners are frequent, and ongoing?

That is correct. I make it a point to do basically a round robin to all the different companies that I visit, and there a number of them. Most of them are major OEMs, like Nissan, General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, but there are also some very large, Tier1 suppliers, that are the component and system development people for the OEM suppliers.

In doing those round robins, and having those conversations with these folks, I am able to glean what it is that’s changing in technology, what it is that’s coming along in a few years, what are the timelines for some of the changes, for implementation of some of the changes. This is what allows us to come back to Macomb and develop course content, develop programs when necessary, to be able to prepare those technicians for the near future.

It’s a really wonderful example of an industry-sensitive and responsive approach to education.

Correct. Believe me, over the last few years, there have been dramatic advances in, for example, driver-assist systems. But not just driver-assist systems, there’s infotainment, there’s electrification, there’s all kinds of stuff that’s going on in that world.

The only way that we’re going to be able to train these folks is to stay involved with the associations, SAE for example, MAGNA, for example, and all the companies that we’re currently involved with. That’s the only way that you can get an understanding of what’s coming, when it’s coming, and when you need to be prepared to train some of these technicians to enter the workforce.

There’s a very nice chart on the CAAT website that outlines something that’s called the “2+2+2 educational pathways.” Can you talk a little bit about that concept, and what it means?

Sure. There’s actually two scenarios in that concept.

One of the scenarios is basically that you do two years at a community college, and then transfer to a four year institution, and get a bachelor’s. Then, either get a master’s at that same institution, or get a master’s in a different institution. Basically, it’s a process or a pathway where we can give people, students, an opportunity to get a lower cost education, because community colleges are substantially less expensive than major universities. We give them a couple years to do that, we develop articulation agreements. In our case, we work very closely with Wayne State University. Wayne State University is one of our primary partners, though we do work with other universities and other colleges. But we put together articulation agreements, to be able to transfer the credits that you gained, or you get, at Macomb. Then, do the same from Wayne State University to others. Or, if they stay in one university, all the way up to a master’s.

The other scenario is that we partner with high schools. We work with some of the high schools here, not just in Warren, but in Macomb, and we try to capture those students that have an interest in automotive, have an interest in technology, and then try to steer them to Macomb to get their associate degree. Once they’ve gone through and have gotten that associate degree, they can decide whether they want to work, or whether they want to go on to a university. We do encourage them to go on to a university. But those people that can’t, for one reason or another, can get a good job. Quite often, these companies that we work with will actually hire them, and then actually will push for them to continue their education at their expense. It’s really, really a nice way of getting your education done.

Again, in high school, we target the last two years in high school. We target them to go to Macomb, two years at Macomb. Then, we go to one of the universities, either Oakland or Wayne State, primarily Wayne State but we’re open to others. We basically push them to make a choice, try to decide what it is you want, and if you can go to farther your education, then that’s great. If you can’t, we understand. There’re opportunities to go out and work, and do it a different way.

I’m hoping that you can talk from a broad perspective about how very important it is that Macomb Community College, through the CAAT program, and other partner universities, work together with industry partners, to build the right type of workforce for the future of Michigan’s mobility economy? Because we are so well positioned here in Michigan to further the mobility ecosystem as the next generation of the automotive industry here in this state, it’s so important to have homegrown talent that can support that industry. What is your take on that?

Well, absolutely. There’s no question about that. Having a properly skilled technical workforce is critical to the future of Michigan mobility. Historically, the Motor City, and the Detroit metro area has been the epicenter of the automotive industry in North America. Michigan ­– and it’s a well-known fact – Michigan has regularly topped the list of engineers per capita, having about the same number of engineers as California, but with significantly different population in the state.

As vehicle technology advances, so too does the skill set required for those people that are going to work in the industry. Technology has advanced in manufacturing, has changed the way we do tests, the way we do vehicle development, the way we work on pre-production vehicles. Those are the kind of things that we look at, to give our students the skill set needed for that higher level job. There are engineering jobs, there are test engineering jobs, there are vehicle development jobs, there are virtual reality type activities that they do at various companies. There are a lot of simulation labs that are being developed at a lot of the companies in the industry. Those are the kind of things that we want to make sure our technicians, our technologists, are able to take one.

Yeah, vehicles are becoming more and more complex. The connected and automated vehicle has required a complexity higher than we’ve ever seen.

So therefore, the types of roles that individuals, the next generation of talent can fulfill really appeal to a broader audience, a broader interest level than just an engineering focus?

That is correct. I’ll give you a couple of examples of two programs that we did. One of them is completed and ongoing, and the other one, we’re hoping to have it done by the fall of this year.

The first one is the Vehicle Engineering Technician. This particular program required, across the Macomb educational system, to put on the classes that were necessary in this program. Traditionally, some of the programs that we have in automotive, engineering, and applied technology, typically had courses that were specifically related to just that trade, or just that thing. However, with the inception of this more complex technology, you’re now requiring knowledge of things that you didn’t use to in the past. You need to know a little bit about programming, embedded C programming, for example. You need to know a little bit about cybersecurity, you need to know about connected and automated vehicles. Those are the kind of things that are new, and require a different skill set.

What we do again is, basically, partner with various universities and community colleges, Wayne State University is one of them. We’ve also partnered up with Florida State, we also partnered up with Kettering University. We develop a lot of this course content, a lot of these programs, in combination with them. Then, we apply them here at Macomb Community College.

Now Ben, I understand that Macomb Community College and the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology are putting on a conference this spring, in May. It’s an annual conference. Give us a preview of that conference, what the theme is, and who is going to be presenting?

Sure. Obviously the schedule is still tentative, we’re trying to iron everything out, some of the speakers are still tentative. But we think we have pretty good lineup.

The conference is going to be May 8th, 2020, and it’ll be at the Center Campus in Clinton Township. The reason for that is because we’ve got construction going on here, at the South Campus, and we don’t have the facilities to be able to hold the conference here. So it’s going to be moved to Clinton Township, it typically used to be held here at the South Campus, but now it’s going to be at Center Campus.

Jim Sawyer, who is our president of the college, will be providing the welcome, and the opening remarks. From there, we’ll go to Amit Kapoor, who is vice president of the business unit at Continental. He will be talking about the state of autonomous systems, and the implication to technicians.

Then, we have Michele Mueller, who is senior project manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation. She will be talking about connected and automated vehicles, and the infrastructure that goes along with those vehicles.

We’ve got Jessica Robinson, who is with Michigan Mobility [Institute], and she will talk in terms of the state of mobility, from an overall perspective, not just connected vehicles. Then, we’ve got Michelle Economou, who is the Executive Director of Workforce Intelligence [Network]. She’s going to be talking about technicians, technologists, and the labor market. Just a review, a summary, of what’s happening out there, where the demand is, and that kind of stuff.

Then, we are fortunate to be a partner with the National Center for Autonomous Technologies (NCAT), which is actually in Minnesota. Out of that organization, we have invited three people, one of whom is Jonathan Beck. He will be talking about aeronautical autonomous technologies. Then, we have Chris Hadfield, who will be talk about land technologies, and autonomous technologies, relative to agricultural, and other land uses. Then, we’ve got someone by the name of Jill Zande, she’s the president and executive director of Marine Advanced Technology Center in … actually, it’s in California, but part of the North Central Autonomous Technologies Group. She’ll be talk about sea autonomous technologies.

It’ll be an interesting overall view of how autonomous technologies are changing throughout all industries, basically.

So it’s a really wonderful way to spend a day, and learn. It sounds like, learn about so much more than just vehicles driving on roads?


It’s about agriculture, and what’s happening in our fields.


And it’s about what’s happening in our skies, and what’s happening in our bodies of water. That’s fascinating, that’s really interesting.

Ben, is there anything else that you’d like to say about CAAT, about the work that you do?

Well, since I retired and joined the CAAT organization, obviously I’ve learned a whole lot. It actually fit me quite well, coming here. The reason I say that is because one of the issues that I had when I ran the laboratories is that I constantly problems finding the right skill set in the open market for technicians. It was very, very difficult to find the right individual, we almost always had to hire someone who came out of the dealership, or who came out of somewhere else. Then, invest a lot of time and energy in training these people. Some of them were quick learners, and in nine months to a year, we had a pretty good individual. Some of them took as much as two years, to be proficient at what we did.

Then, I happened to run into Bob Feldmaier, who was the director of the center here, prior to me. I started looking at his program, and as it turns out, I started hiring a few of the people that came out of Macomb. That’s how I got involved, that’s how I understood what the issues were. That’s how I understand what we need to do, to be able to improve the training techniques, to improve the course content, to upgrade some of the … I’m not saying that the programs are bad, because they actually have some very good programs here. But we need to insert the new technology into those programs.

Yes. Now you are able to help solve a problem that you had, when you were working in the industry, and you’re able to help provide the talent that you know are absolutely needed in the workforce.


Wonderful. Ben Cruz, thank you so much for talking with me for Driven’s Mobility Moments podcast today. I really enjoyed talking with you.

Thank you, Claire. It was a pleasant conversation, it was very nice to be able to openly talk about some of the activities that we do here. I’m quite proud of some of the things that we’re getting done, and hope to do quite a few more in the future.

Special thanks to Ben Cruz, from the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology at Macomb Community College. Learn more about how the Detroit region leads in next generation mobility at Driven, Read Driven’s mobility news and features, and subscribe to our newsletter.

Until next time, I’m Claire Charlton.

Photo of Ben Cruz courtesy of Macomb Community College