Retooling Engineers for the New Detroit
by Marcia Goodrich
Downsizing, bankruptcies, factory closures . . . It's hard to find good news in Detroit. But a new partnership aims to rewrite the headlines.
It began last fall, when Terry Woychowski '78 wanted to do something to help his fellow engineers. Dreary news reports detailed the plight of automotive workers whose jobs were disappearing in droves. What Woychowski knew, and what wasn't being reported, was that hundreds of jobs were also being created. But these were jobs on the forefront of automotive design, and people with the skills for those jobs were in short supply.
What Detroit's laid-off auto engineers needed was to have their skill sets retooled for the twenty-first century, Woychowski thought.
So he forged a partnership among three players that he knew very well: alma mater Michigan Tech; the Engineering Society of Detroit, where he is president-elect; and General Motors, where he serves as vice president of global vehicle program management. What emerged was a distance-learning version of a course in hybrid vehicle engineering. Instead of being available only on campus, Michigan Tech's Advanced Propulsion Technologies class would also be held in southeastern Michigan. GM would provide logistical support, hybrid vehicles, and facilities. The Engineering Society of Detroit would recruit students from southern Michigan's pool of laid-off engineers.
Just in time for the spring semester, it all came together, and over sixty laid-off engineers were enrolled. Most of the students were years—even decades—out of school. So, while the tuition was free, they would all pay a steep price in sweat equity, mastering advanced math as well as sweeping new concepts in electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science. The organizers weren't sure how many would make it.
But when the course ended in June, nearly everyone who started was still standing. "It went great, better than any of us ever expected," said the class coordinator, GM design release engineer Jennifer Goforth.
Jason Lungstrom '00 of Westland, Michigan, near Detroit, was among those who graduated. "No one knew what to expect, but it went really well, and we all got a lot out of it," he said. "It was hard, but it gave me a whole new skill set that I hope to be able to use in a growing industry."
Paul Blust '85 had been away from the classroom almost twenty-five years. "It was a challenge to hop back into the academic world," he said. "But they were very tolerant of the fact that we'd been out of school for awhile.
"I used to work for General Motors, and it really made me feel proud to be part of a program that was put together by GM and my alma mater."
Because it was a distance-learning course, the students could have stayed home and watched the three weekly lectures online. But that's not what they did, said Goforth. "The majority came to class every week to meet with their team," sometimes driving two hours or more to Southfield. "The students recognized the commitment that Michigan Tech made, and that meant so much to them. It brought it to a personal level."
A crew of volunteers from General Motors guided the students through their lab work. "We had a recognition dinner for all the volunteers, who put so much of their personal energy into this," Woychowski said. "They came up afterward and asked, ‘What's next?' That was an indication that this was a significant achievement that touched a lot of people. I'm proud of my alma mater, I'm proud of General Motors, and I'm proud of the Engineering Society of Detroit: they all worked together and did something constructive for southeastern Michigan."
The students, too, are eager to take the next step. "The feedback has been phenomenal," said Goforth. "I've received countless emails thanking us for
making the class a reality. Many are asking, what's next? Where can I go from here?"
Funny they should ask. The class's lead teacher, Associate Professor Jeff Naber, has received two grants, one to offer another course in Detroit, another to develop a suite of distance-learning courses (see below).
"We can point to this as a successful pilot," said Woychowski. "But there are still lots of problems to be solved, lots of designs to be created. We did it once, and now we are ready to do it even better."
Back by popular demand
Tech to develop curriculum for hybrid vehicles, expand classes in Detroit
If something works, keep doing it. Last spring's class for displaced auto engineers was such a success that the University is offering a similar class this fall and again in spring 2010. It will emphasize battery technologies, which are at the heart of hybrid vehicle propulsion.
With support from the Engineering Society of Detroit, the class is being offered tuition-free to auto engineers under the auspices of the Michigan Academy for Green Mobility, in cooperation with the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. The academy promotes worker training in green technologies for the auto industry.
In the meantime, an interdisciplinary team of Tech faculty will be developing an entire curriculum to train engineers and technicians to design and build the next generation of hybrid electric vehicles, thanks to nearly $3 million in federal stimulus funds provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
"We'll be training and retraining the next generation of engineers to produce vehicles that reduce fuel consumption and emissions," said Jeff Naber, associate professor of mechanical engineering–engineering mechanics and lead faculty member on the project.