Building a Motor City for ‘The People’ in the Electric Age

Detroit looks to reskill residents for jobs in the booming EV and mobility tech sector as Ford invests $740M in a new innovation hub.

DETROIT — Once the beacon of automotive manufacturing, Detroit has famously struggled to maintain its storied reputation in the face of fierce global competition and a shrinking population. Now, with a significant investment by Ford, it hopes to reclaim the mantle of Motor City for the electric car age.

In 2018, Ford Motor Company announced it would invest $740M toward renovating Detroit’s historic Michigan Central Railroad Station, turning the previously vacant train depot into an innovation hub for startups at the forefront of new mobility technologies. Google has signed on as a founding partner.

The new campus will house 5K workers, split between Ford and several mobility tech companies, including the startups Airspace Link, Canopy, Grounded,, and Cavnue.

The Big Idea: Slated to open to the public this June, Michigan Central is more than a building. It’s a hub where Ford hopes to attract the best minds in the world to help it solve the auto industry’s biggest challenges as it pivots to electric and autonomous vehicles. Detroit city officials are hoping it can help with a big challenge of another kind: getting the city’s thousands of underemployed residents the education and training they need to move into mobility tech and other jobs of the future.  

Clarinda Barnett-Harrison, director of skills programming at Michigan Central, says the hub is bought in. Over the next decade, Michigan Central hopes to support 3K learners in high-growth job areas.

“There are not enough technologists, particularly in the software development space,” Barnett-Harrison says. “In Detroit, we have even more disparity in terms of people with the skills needed to enter into a technology-based workforce and be successful at getting the job.”

The Demand: In 2022, the Detroit Regional Partnership was awarded a $52.2M grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help launch the Global Epicenter of Mobility

The grant funding, provided through the federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge, is meant to help Greater Detroit reimagine the auto and mobility tech industry as the electrification industry expands rapidly. It’s part of a broader Biden Administration agenda to invest heavily in places beyond the “superstar” cities to create regional expertise and high-paying jobs. The effort draws on massive spending on pandemic recovery, infrastructure and emerging industries.

“What I think is in the air now is a sense of needed scale and initiative.”

—Mark Muro, Senior Fellow at Brookings Metro

In Detroit, training people and expanding the workforce is central to the strategy for building a Global Epicenter of Mobility. In 2022, Michigan launched its EV Jobs Academy, a statewide initiative to train workers in software development, electrical engineering, information security, and maintenance and repair. With an initial $5M investment, plans are underway to develop education and training programs through local career centers and colleges.

State officials hope that by 2030, 7K workers with mobility tech credentials enter the state’s labor force. Analysts have projected that the global electric vehicle market, worth $384B in 2022, will grow to $1.5T in that same time period. And that was before the Biden administration announced major new rules this week, aimed at ensuring the majority of passenger vehicles sold in the United States are electric or hybrid by 2032.

“This is a very important and demanding transformation that places need to make,” says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has researched place-based investments.

“The United States has historically not invested very well in training people even for its existing industries, let alone ones that are emerging. What I think is in the air now is a sense of needed scale and initiative.”

On the Ground: Marcus Glenn was sitting at home last December when he saw a notification on his phone. It was an email from Detroit at Work, the city’s workforce development program, inquiring if he was interested in electric vehicles.

“I responded, and the next thing I know I’m taking a competency test to get into the class,” Glenn says. “A few days after that, it was orientation.”

Last month, Glenn became one of the first Detroiters to graduate from a new skills training program at Michigan Central, designed to equip residents with the skills and knowledge to become electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) field technicians. 

Students in the first cohort of the ChargerHelp! skills training, which aims to prepare Detroiters for jobs maintaining and repairing electric vehicle charging stations. (Courtesy of Michigan Central)

For eight weeks, Glenn and his classmates learned from trainers at ChargerHelp!, a Los Angeles-based tech company that provides on-demand maintenance and repair of electric vehicle charging stations.

The training program is a nationally-certified course designed by the Society for Automotive Engineers. Certified Detroiters can expect to earn $67K as industry demand grows. 

“The pay would be higher than what I’m currently making,” Glenn says. 

With two years of college experience, the 35-year-old has made a living for nearly a decade by taking contract jobs to test drive cars. The jobs average upwards of $17 an hour, he says. Beyond a potential pay bump, though, Glenn is most interested in the job stability a career in the EV market could offer.

Creating Pathways to Well-Paying Jobs

The city of Detroit hopes to give more residents like Glenn that kind of stability.

In 2020, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan launched “The People Plan,” a citywide initiative to address employment and economic barriers for city residents. Part of its recent efforts have included paying adult learners to earn their GED or high school diploma and increasing wraparound services for those struggling to get to and from their workplace.

“We’ve always been good at placing people into jobs, but recently we’ve become more focused on putting them into what we feel are career paths” in high-demand industries, says Dana Williams, president of Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, which oversees the city’s workforce programs, collectively dubbed Detroit at Work.

“We very intentionally said the goal of this plan is to improve economic mobility opportunities for Black and brown Detroiters,” she says.

It’s a pressing challenge for a city where nearly one-third of residents live in poverty. Detroit’s labor force participation rate, at 54.7%, ranks among the lowest in the nation.

“We very intentionally said the goal of this plan is to improve economic mobility opportunities for Black and brown Detroiters.”

—Dana Williams, president of Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation

The Details: Williams says the city operates under an “A-B-C model” in its workforce development efforts. “A” is getting Detroit residents into a job. 

“For some people, any job is appropriate, especially if they are on the verge of crisis, and they need to go to work to earn an income,” she says. 

For those seeking better-paying jobs, the city offers “B” career coaches to connect them with nearly 70 training programs for high-demand, high-growth industries across healthcare, information technology, mobility, and construction and skills trades.

And then “C,” there are the people who may have a few skills but want to pursue a two- or four-year college degree to enter a new middle-wage or management position, she says.

“That’s where we want to improve their skills, send them to training so they can get on the pathway to these more lucrative careers.”

The city annually places roughly 5K people in new jobs, with salaries now averaging upwards of $17 per hour, according to Williams. Before the pandemic, the average was $13 an hour.

Those wages are below the average across the Detroit metro, which is why city officials hope Michigan Central can help underskilled residents develop the kinds of specialized knowledge and skills that will make them highly sought after by both existing companies and those expected to enter the market. 

Mayor Duggan has already gotten Stellantis and General Motors to base new assembly plants within city limits, bringing in production jobs. However, with an increasing influx of knowledge-based tech and EV jobs arriving in the area, experts say additional skills training is needed to help people in historically marginalized communities compete for those jobs.

Roughly two-thirds of metro Detroit’s growing occupations are in healthcare, tech, and finance and business, and only 13% of Black and Latino workers who live in Detroit are employed in those occupations, far below those that live outside city limits, according to a 2023 report from Detroit Future City, a policy think tank. 

Training is critical to change that reality, but Williams says the city knows that’s not enough. Inconsistent transportation and unaffordable childcare limit many Detroiters’ access to quality employment and higher education, she says. Detroit at Work, as well as nearby community colleges, have expanded access to wraparound services.

Growing a 21st Century ‘Mobility Tech’ Workforce

Michigan Central Station in Detroit on Mar. 13, 2024. (Photo by Ethan Bakuli for Work Shift)

Michigan Central currently has $1.8M in state dollars to fund its workforce development programs. By this spring, it intends to launch a course in software development to complement other efforts underway. 

Over a decade ago, Grand Circus launched as a virtual coding bootcamp serving the city. In 2021, Apple started a one-year Developer Academy through a partnership with Michigan State University.

In an already crowded market for coding bootcamps, Barnett-Harrison says, Michigan Central is working to build off and not duplicate citywide efforts to train Detroiters of color in STEM.

Michigan Central will likely recruit students who participated in those entry-level coding programs for additional training, she says, hoping the hub can develop a cadre of full-stack developers for area employers.

“Our approach is not to be a training provider or to replace the education ecosystem, but to be thoughtful about bringing on best-in-class training providers that are upskilling adult learners in the skills needed by the mobility tech industry,” Barnett-Harrison says.

Local community colleges and nonprofits have replicated Michigan Central’s collaboration with ChargerHelp! to develop EVSE field technician training programs. And organizations like Focus: HOPE and Wayne County Community College District have seen success in providing job training and microcredentials for workers looking to upskill into a wide range of high-demand jobs.

In 2022, WCCCD partnered with Stellantis to develop an accredited mechatronics program, offering students certificates for learning in specialized areas such as robotics and automation. The program is being funded by Stellantis and partnering companies, with over $30M in grant funding and donated automation equipment provided to the community college. In its first year, the program certified 40 Stellantis workers.

But for more Detroiters to benefit from the city’s economic growth, the Detroit Future City report finds, people need much clearer pathways into well-paying jobs that may require new skills but not a four-year degree. Only about 17% of Detroit residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

Promoting STEM Careers in K-12

Beyond serving adult workers seeking reskill for their jobs, Barnett-Harrison says, Michigan Central is also expanding its programming to serve the next generation of technologists. 

“We’re thinking about postsecondary students and attracting and retaining graduates from our local colleges and universities as well as nationally, but also thinking about the preK-12 space, and going further upstream to ensure that the talent who are graduating from our K-12 systems also have the skills needed,” she says. 

Google, a founding partner of Michigan Central, has already begun that work. Since 2022, it’s been running Code Next, a free immersive computer science program designed to further interest in STEM among students of color.

The program provides training from Google volunteers and practical instruction on coding languages and robots.

Kyle Ali, senior program lead, couldn’t provide Detroit-specific outcomes but says 92% of high school seniors who have graduated from the Code Next program across its three national locations have gone on to attend college, with 88% pursuing STEM majors. 

Those results would be significant for a city where student math and science test scores are below average and more than half of high school graduates did not pursue postsecondary education. 

“We’ve seen students enter our program at all different levels of math and science competencies,” Ali says. “We intentionally design our curriculum with ‘computational thinking’ at the core, introducing common STEM concepts like abstraction, pattern recognition, and data analysis.”

Code Next also comes in the middle of a push across Detroit to invest in computer science education at the K-12 level. CSforDetroit, which launched this past fall and includes Google as a partner, is a multi-year initiative created to expand yearlong access to that type of programming. 

Ali says that by the end of the year, Code Next aims to enroll 150 Detroit students and host more community events to expand its reach.

The Road Ahead

Although Michigan Central and city officials say they have no projections of how many jobs the training programs will lead to, they are optimistic that it will pay dividends for Detroit jobseekers. 

In January, the German electric vehicle charger company EcoG announced plans to invest $14.4M to establish its American headquarters at Michigan Central. The company expects to create 45 new jobs and recruit workers through Detroit at Work. 

“Even if I’m not working on chargers, just to have a way into an industry that will be blooming in some capacity is nice.”

—Marcus Glenn, Detroit resident and ChargerHelp! graduate

That same month, Michigan received an $8M federal grant to install electric vehicle charging stations across the middle of the state. 

“We do believe that what we’re embarking upon can change the face of how we look at what innovation is from the standpoint of who’s included—making sure that folks who are traditionally underrepresented, but very high potential, are a part of it,” Barnett-Harrison says.

Participants like Glenn can connect with regional employers through the state’s EV Jobs Academy. Since graduating in late January, he has kept his eye out for any job opportunities in Detroit and around the southeast position of the state.

“Gradually things are opening up, but it’s still pretty slimmed up,” Glenn says. “As far as the career itself and just knowing how things move in Detroit, it could be maybe up until the end of the year.” 

In the meantime, however, he’s looking forward to taking the new SAE certification exam for EVSE technicians this spring. 

“Even if I’m not working on chargers, just to have a way into an industry that will be blooming in some capacity is nice,” Glenn says. “It could take a minute, but it is nice to be ahead of the pack.”

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