By the numbers: Detroit offers a bright future for technology professionals

Metro Detroit’s tech job growth was nearly 2x the national average in recent years

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Image credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

For the last few years, the automotive presence at CES has gone from noticeable to taking over. In January of this year, there was so much car tech at CES that I watched a Bosch technology that allowed a car to park itself, drove a smart car that connected not only to a smart phone but to a smart watch, tried inductive chargers built into vehicles, and evaluated in-car app marketplaces. Intel, Qualcomm, Apple, Google, and other tech companies are developing technologies specifically for automobiles. Cars are already pretty technical, with lane-keep technologies that correct your driving if you drift, radar that can anticipate an accident ahead, and sensors that can “see” obstacles in your path. But the future car will be so technically endowed that it will not only be able to heal itself by updating code from the Internet, drive itself, and communicate with other cars as you fly down the freeway.

Many engineers who once worked in the wireless industry are now working in Detroit because car manufacturers have been hiring out of the wireless and the IT industries so they can put these kinds of technologies into the design of their cars.

Paul Hedtke, senior director, Business Development, Qualcomm

People are – and will be – building those technologies. And someone – be it automobile manufacturers or companies they outsource to – will be hiring those people. I spoke to an app developer who works for GM’s Onstar recently so I know some of this work is happening at the car companies.

I also spoke to Paul Hedtke, senior director of Business Development at Qualcomm last week about what’s coming to vehicles from the mobile chip and modem maker. If you are a geek who loves his wheels, can you hope to combine those two interests? “This is an industry that is certainly going to continue to grow as all these connected vehicles are interfacing with the cloud,” he agreed. “Either the car makers will do it or they will outsource it to telematics makers such as Verizon telematics.”

    Automation Alley, a tech business association dedicated to growing the economy of Southeast Michigan, commissions an annual report that analyzes metro Detroit’s technology industry from several angles. Here are a few key takeaways from its 2013 Technology Industry report:

  • Tech industry employment in metro Detroit is up 15 percent from the previous year’s study. In comparison, Silicon Valley experienced a 4 percent decline.

  • Metro Detroit’s technology sector added more than 30,000 jobs, while Silicon Valley’s technology sector lost 10,000.

  • Schools in the metro Detroit region graduated more students in the areas of engineering and engineering technology than any other region in the study, with more STEM graduates and computer science graduates than Silicon Valley.

  • Michigan leads the nation in the advanced automotive industry, with a concentration of employment in metro Detroit that is 6.5 times the national average and a concentration in Grand Rapids that is 3.5 times the national average.

  • Nearly 10 percent of total employment in the metro Detroit area is tech-related.

  • Source: Compiled by Anderson Economic Group for Automation Alley

Since American car makers already have a substantial presence in Detroit – a town that became an urban wasteland during the dark years at GM and Ford but that is now seeing a bit of a renaissance – I wondered if the future of high tech might move east from Silicon Valley. “There already is a tech bubble happening in Detroit,” answered Hedtke. “Many engineers who once worked in the wireless industry are now working in Detroit because car manufacturers have been hiring out of the wireless and the IT industries so they can put these kinds of technologies into the design of their cars.”

And, according to Automation Alley's 2013 Technology Industry Report, the metro Detroit area grew to a total of 242,520 technology industry jobs in 2011, representing a 15% increase from the 2010 level of 210,984 technology industry jobs. No other benchmarked region had greater technology industry growth than metro Detroit in this period. Further, according to the report, this growth helped propel metro Detroit to a ranking of fourth among the 14 benchmarked regions, passing San Jose.

This is good news if you are shopping for a place to live and don't mind a bit of urban grit. A quick search on Zillow indicates you can buy an apartment in Detroit for about what one of those high-tech cars costs. 

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