Michigan Mobility Institute Aims to Expand AV Talent, Ecosystem

A new tech education effort is forming in Detroit—created by Fontinalis Partners co-founder Chris Thomas—that focuses on teaching adult students the skills they need to compete for the increasingly large number of open jobs in the mobility industry.

Called the Detroit Mobility Lab, it has two goals: to build the mobility talent infrastructure necessary to support the sector in the future, and to create one of the world’s foremost mobility technology ecosystems in Detroit. The lab expects its first yearlong class to get underway in 2021. But it recently took another step forward, naming Jessica Robinson executive director of the lab’s first program, the Michigan Mobility Institute (MMI).

Robinson has been working in mobility for the past 10 years. She helped bring Zipcar to Detroit in 2013 as part of the company’s North American growth team. (The company was acquired by Avis the same year.) As part of the process of getting Zipcar established in Detroit, she began to fall for the city.

“I ended up moving to Detroit because of it,” she explains. “I had never been here, I had no connection to Detroit at all, but I really fell in love with the city and made great business connections.”

Robinson has also worked for Techstars and Ford City Solutions, which taught her a lot about the mobility industry. “I saw a cross-cut of the industries going through tremendous change—digitization, shifting demand, and how to partner with startups,” she says. Although she loved the work, there was a lot of travel involved and she realized she wanted to “put her money where [her] mouth is” locally.

“It was time to jump in and stand up and lead,” she adds. “We heard a disconnect in awareness of just how big the [mobility] talent gap is—the magnitude of it and how it will just compound. Traditional university programs are not nimble enough to respond to how quickly the industry is changing.”

The Michigan Mobility Institute is designed to create a new crop of mobility professionals within artificial intelligence, robotics, cybersecurity, and other related fields. The cost of the 12-month program is still under discussion, she says. The lab itself has been funded so far by bootstrapping and with money from philanthropic foundations, although she didn’t specify the source or amount of support.

“The companies that will drive the future of mobility will be incredibly multifaceted and will require individuals with robust academic and practical backgrounds in artificial intelligence, robotics, and cybersecurity,”  Thomas said in a press release. “If the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan are serious about becoming one of the leading future mobility start-up ecosystems in the world, and I believe they are, we need to create an entity dedicated to producing professionals who will lead in these specializations. MMI would help build a mobility talent infrastructure of men and women who are second to none right here in our backyard.”

“We know from conversations with constituents that the talent base is often focused on one specialization in one area,” Robinson continues. “But what companies say they need is people with experience across tech, like A.I., data science, machine learning, and cybersecurity. MMI will create a curriculum and programs to bring those disciplines together.”

At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week, Robinson says she had corporate leaders “coming out of the woodwork” to say how much trouble they were having finding mobility talent. Although MMI will work with partners on the curriculum’s retraining and workforce development elements, Robinson says the program can also serve as a sort of “finishing school” for those who already have an engineering background.

Upon completion of the MMI program, participants will have earned what Robinson considers to be the equivalent of a Master’s degree in subjects relevant to the mobility industry. “The curriculum has to be driven by what’s happening in industry, and things are changing so fast,” she says. “Product development and skilled trades are another huge piece. There are 65,000 new jobs in this area just for autonomous vehicle and electric vehicle deployments.”

It’s important to Thomas and Robinson that the mobility lab is a by Detroit, for Detroit opportunity. It has been operating out of the downtown PlanetM Landing Zone so far, but as the program grows, she says it will relocate to an office in Detroit. Curriculum development is taking place now in consultation with mobility industry leaders, and the lab is also assembling an advisory board to help further guide programming decisions.

“I believe we have the chance to define what training and certifications are, so Detroiters could have the first crack at it and be well positioned for those jobs,” Robinson maintains. “The hope is for positive impact here.”

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