US state sees auto jobs going high-tech image

A continued surge in automotive research and development jobs could mean that Michigan State will soon have more non-factory auto jobs than assembly plant positions for the first time.

With the recession in the rear-view mirror and the aftereffects of the auto industry crisis winding down — including a 55 percent drop in statewide auto production jobs since 2000 — beefed-up R&D operations continue to solidify southeastern Michigan as the automotive capital of North America, with a different makeup.

The growth rate of research and development jobs in the auto industry has nearly quadrupled in Michigan compared to that sector’s growth throughout the rest of the nation over the last four decades, and nearly half of Michigan’s quarter-million auto jobs are outside of a factory, according to a recent report compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Automotive research and development in Michigan accounts for nearly $12 billion in annual spending, according to a recent economic report from Oakland University. That’s the most of any state.

“This is one of the things about Detroit that people can’t understand in the bigger picture,” said Mike Smith, a union archivist at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library, referencing the Motor City’s highly publicized auto manufacturing decline. “Detroit is still the intellectual capital of the global automotive industry.”

Michigan’s share of U.S. automotive production jobs has shrunk since 1970, taking an especially hard hit since 2005. While jobs were lost here, southern states and California gained production jobs, mostly in factories owned by foreign automakers.

The number of research and development jobs in Michigan’s auto sector have fallen since 2000,but not as sharply as manufacturing jobs. But the number of technical positions should grow: Ford Motor Co. this year is completing the hiring of 2,000 salaried R&D workers. General Motors Co. has postings for hundreds of similar jobs. Engineering jobs in the local auto supplier base will be added to help automakers meet federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards and to help automate cars.