Ahead of the curve in training mobility workers

(From left) Dr. Rose B. Bellanca (president of Washtenaw Community College), Brandon Tucker (WCC's vice president and chief workforce and community development officer) and Al Lecz (director of WCC’s Advanced Transportation Center) talk with visitors to the college’s booth at last month's North American International Auto Show. (All photos: J.D. Scott/WCC)

Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, held last month for the first time since 2019 because of the Covid pandemic, gives attendees a glimpse at new car models and emerging auto technologies. This year’s show included exhibitors from automakers and universities, as well as Washtenaw Community College (WCC), which showcased its Ford Mustang Mach-E.

Instructors at the Michigan college use the electric vehicle (EV) to teach students how to diagnose, repair and calibrate advanced driver assistance systems.

“We purchased it almost two years ago when they were first coming out because we wanted to show our students what it’s like to work and to deal with an electric vehicle,” said Brandon Tucker, WCC’s vice president and chief workforce and community development officer.

By 2030, millions of electric vehicles will be on the roadways. The U.S. must install half a million public EV charging stations to accommodate these vehicles. WCC works closely with automotive and other industry partners to prepare students for the talent pipeline critical to installing this large number of charging stations.

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II (seated) stopped by Washtenaw’s booth at the auto show. WCC’s Al Lecz points out the interior features of its all-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E.

“We were at the auto show because we wanted our employers to know what we do and know that we are serious (about training students),” said WCC President Rose B. Bellanca.

And she is serious about the reputation she wants WCC students to have with industry. She hopes industry employers know that WCC students have the skills they seek in employees.

The college’s booth also garnered interest from state government officials, including Michigan’s Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, who visited the display and tried out the Mustang.

Connected with CEOs

WCC’scommitment to the transportation industry goes back to a pivotal meeting eight years ago, when WCC college leadership met with leaders from the auto industry. Significantly, many of the industry representatives were CEOs.

“It’s our philosophy that unless we meet with the CEOs, we will not understand what they will need in the future so that we can prepare our students today,” Bellanca said. “The great part about being in Ann Arbor when you call a meeting and want input is that we are fortunate to get CEOs to attend.”

Following the advice of the CEOs, WCC combined its automotive technologies, advanced manufacturing and information technology (IT) and launched its Advanced Transportation Center (ATC) in 2014. With a solid idea of the future needs of the car industry, Bellanca proceeded to align college faculty training, curriculum development and equipment purchases with the future needs of the industry.

“With our focus on mobility, (we are) expanding more into cybersecurity,” Bellanca said. “And eventually, we’ll expand into smart cities and smart cars. We always want to be prepared for the next innovation.”

An interdisciplinary approach

Tucker noted that ATC is the triangle where IT, advanced manufacturing and automotive technologies intersect.

“We were the only college at the auto show and continue to be a leader in the state because we blend and have an interdisciplinary approach,” he said.

“Our ATC concept is that an individual who needs to come to get reskilled, upskilled or trained for the first time can do it not just by coming to a degree program or getting a certificate. They could also take a short-term class on data analytics or fiber optics,” Tucker said. “Students that complete our programs know about the automotive side. But they also know about the infotainment system in the car and how it operates from an IT perspective (and from an ethical) hacking perspective. That’s what makes a WCC mobility student different. We’ve exposed them to several different areas that are intersecting and connecting.”

Related article: Electric vehicle industry needs a workforce charge

“We want to be ready so that when (employers say) ‘we need an EV technician.’ We can say we have it, we have the program, we do the training,” Bellanca added.

Industry continues to help the college prepare for the future. WCC automotive programs have advisory boards comprised of individuals representing Toyota, GM, Ford and Bosch. These boards are helping the college to transform the CEOs’ visions into curricula and training. And WCC’s advisory relationship with industry goes two ways: Tucker is one of 24 individuals appointed to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Industrial Advisory Committee.

Automotive cybersecurity

This fall, WCC opened a new Automotive Cybersecurity Lab. At the auto show, the college demonstrated the lab’s Umlaut workbenches, which are identical to those used in the automotive industry. The workbench, also known as “Ford on a board,” is a replica of a Ford or Lincoln dashboard with a steering wheel with visible computers, microcontrollers and wiring infrastructure. The college purchased the workbench using funds from a University of Michigan-led Center for Connected and Automated Transportation (CCAT) grant and matching funds from the college.

“The workstations allow students to have an experience (with a replica of a Ford or Lincoln’s complete communication and computer systems),” Tucker said.

WCC’s new Automotive Cybersecurity Lab features Umlaut workbenches that bring vehicle “infotainment” and other key systems from real production vehicles into the classroom.

Cybersecurity is a critical aspect of the future of mobility. As Tucker pointed out, every car has 100,000 lines of code, making them vulnerable to hacking.

“A car still looks like a car,” Bellanca added, “when in fact, it’s the most expensive computer you own. And it’s sitting in your driveway.”

WCC is a designated U.S. National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education.

New and emerging jobs

Enrollment in the automotive program is growing. Bellanca and Tucker expect it to keep expanding as people become more aware of “mobility technician” as a career option.

“People still don’t understand all the things that go into the mobility sector, whether it be manufacturing or automotive servicing,” said Tucker.

Bellanca added the general public and even some trainers frequently don’t realize that many of these cutting-edge jobs and careers already exist.

“I don’t know if I would if I wasn’t involved in this,” Bellanca said. “I don’t know that I would realize what changes have taken place in that industry. We have to do a lot of educating of parents, counselors and people, in general.”

About the Author

Michele Hujber
Michele Hujber is a freelance writer for higher education institutions and related organizations.