Your guide to a career in green mobility in Detroit

A PLANET DETROIT GREEN JOBS GUIDE: There’s high demand for workers to fill green transportation jobs right now, driven largely by the growing demand for EVs.

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Q Johnson, founder of Plug Zen. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Electric vehicles have been a popular topic of conversation in recent years. But Detroit native Q Johnson said he’s known they were the future since he left his job making prototype vehicles at Ford in 2006.

“It sounded totally crazy then, but now look at it,” Johnson said. “Seventeen years later, this is where everything is going.”

Johnson is just one of many Detroiters who’ve found rewarding careers in the rapidly growing field of green transportation. After leaving Ford, Johnson worked for several EV-related startups, gaining firsthand knowledge of the field he now leverages as an entrepreneur. 

Three years ago he started PlugZen, a Southwest Detroit-based EV charging company. The company will install its first EVALL charging station, which allows up to 10 vehicles to charge on the same circuit this summer.

Johnson said he’s glad he “threw all [his] eggs in one basket” when he got into green transportation. He’s excited about the environmental impact of his work, and hopes to see the U.S. increase its renewable energy usage. 

He said the green transportation field is accessible to career-seekers who share his passion. Johnson pursued a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan-Dearborn but was hired at Ford before completing it. His formal education ended there, and he’s since become an EV expert through firsthand work in the field. 

Johnson said there are “many avenues” for job-seekers to get into green transportation careers.

“The potential for growth right now is astronomical, but you’ve got to find the right fit for you,” he said.

If you’re thinking about following in Johnson’s footsteps to pursue a career in green transportation, the sector offers numerous training and entry-level job opportunities with significant potential for advancement in Metro Detroit and beyond. 

In this Planet Detroit Climate Guide, we’ll dig into some common questions about this growing field.

What is a green transportation job?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines green jobs as jobs that “produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources” or jobs that involve making businesses’ “production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources.” Accordingly, the specific area of green transportation jobs can encompass various fields.

“We think it’s any form of sustainable transportation that is either reducing carbon emissions or is net zero, all the way down to walking,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of auto industry advocacy organization MICHauto. “[That includes] traditional vehicles, but we’re working right now with off-road recreational vehicles, ATVs, snowmobiles, and then you get to motorcycles and electric bikes and bikes and walking. They’re all green transportation forms.”

By this definition, someone who works on planning or building sidewalks or other new pedestrian infrastructure holds a green transportation job. But one of the fastest-growing subsets of green transportation jobs are those related to manufacturing and powering electric vehicles (EVs), including hybrid and battery-powered passenger, commercial, and public transit vehicles. 

Here in Detroit, some of our biggest employers – and some of the biggest employers in the country – are working to reposition themselves as green transportation employers with a heavy emphasis on EVs. Stevens notes that Detroit’s Big Three and other automakers, once viewed primarily as contributors to environmental problems have invested heavily in pursuing a greener future. GM has set a goal of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion; Ford is pursuing carbon neutrality by 2050; and Stellantis is targeting net-zero emissions by 2038.

“Most of these companies don’t even want to be referred to as automotive companies,” Stevens said. “They want to be referred to as tech companies, which you could argue they are when you look at the sustainability and digitalization of the vehicles.”

What is the outlook for green transportation jobs?

There’s high demand for workers to fill green transportation jobs right now, driven largely by the growing demand for EVs. A Goldman Sachs Research forecast anticipates that EVs will account for half of all new car sales worldwide by 2035 and even more than that in developed countries (80% in the U.S., for example).

 As a result, green transportation jobs are growing. Clean transportation jobs grew by 22% in Michigan in 2021, adding 5,216 new jobs for a total of 29,484 workers. That’s far faster than Michigan’s 5.6% growth rate for clean energy jobs in the same year. 

In addition to automakers’ shift to address growing public demand for green transportation, federal and state policy will help drive further expansion in the sector. For example, the recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) establishes a tax credit of up to $7,500 for those who buy a new, qualified plug-in EV or fuel-cell electric vehicle. An analysis commissioned by the Nature Conservancy forecasts that the IRA will create 537,000 jobs yearly over the next decade, including almost 71,400 per year in EVs and alternative fuels. 

At the state level, Michigan’s MI Healthy Climate Plan also sets ambitious goals for green transportation growth. The plan’s recommendations include building the infrastructure necessary to support 2 million electric vehicles on Michigan roads by 2030 (5.1 million vehicles are currently registered in the state). The plan also recommends increasing access to clean transportation options – including public transit – by 15% annually until 2030.

Stevens notes that surging industry interest in sustainability drives green jobs in other sectors. He points to DTE’s recent agreement to add 650 megawatts of new solar energy capacity in Michigan for Ford by 2025, the largest renewable energy purchase from a utility in U.S. history. 

Stevens said it’s “absolutely the Wild Wild West when it comes to talent opportunities,” noting that automakers are “all in an absolute arms race, for lack of a better term, regarding electrification and other forms of alternative energy propulsion.”

“They can’t hire people strategically fast enough in those areas,” Stevens said.

One challenge in green transportation is that it’s still relatively new, growing and changing rapidly as technology develops. Don Hutchison, principal investigator at the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology (CAAT) at Macomb Community College (MCC), said there will be many job opportunities in the field, but “it’s not yet clearly defined” what some of them will look like. 

“We struggle with that,” he said. “But ultimately, the outlook will be very good over the next five to 10 years.”

How can I get started in a green transportation career?

Depending on what kind of career you want to pursue, various training options are available, and many of them are relatively low-cost or even free. 

In one prominent example, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration has made a $10 million grant to the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance to fund transportation-related training programs through 2025. 

The resulting program, Building an Industry Infinity Supply Chain, offers Michigan workers reimbursement for training, ranging from 16-week certification programs to two-year associate’s degrees, for careers ranging from electronic installers to transportation planners. Your local Michigan Works! agency can help you identify training and funding opportunities you may be eligible for. 

Similarly, the state of Michigan has invested $12 million into the Michigan Electric Vehicle Jobs Academy, which offers tuition assistance for people pursuing training for various EV-related jobs.

“I would stress that job seekers get to know their Michigan Works! agencies,” said Michele Economou Ureste, the executive director of Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN). “That can support them in navigating to some of these opportunities where training funds are available to earn certifications that lead to good-paying jobs.”

Another crucial stepping stone to a green transportation career is a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). Kristi Ayers, project manager for WIN, said a CDL might be a prerequisite for many municipal transportation jobs and jobs with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) – one of the state’s largest transportation employers. It’s also a first step towards many careers supported by the Industry Infinity program. More information on obtaining a CDL in Michigan is available here.

“It’s been a really interesting ride to see that CDL as an entry into so many careers in the transportation industry,” Ayers said.

Electricians are also highly sought after in the green transportation field. You can learn more about state requirements to become a journeyman or master electrician here. Stevens notes that apprenticeship programs across the state (like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers‘) are “dying to be filled” with apprentices who can “earn as they learn” to become journeymen.

“When you layer on top of that that 80% of [EV] charging is done in homes, and then all the new charging networks that will be put in play, it’s going to grow and grow,” he said. “That is a tremendous opportunity for people.”

College education also offers many paths into green transportation careers – and you may be able to obtain your associate’s, bachelor’s, or even master’s degree for free. The state’s Michigan Reconnect program offers free tuition at participating community colleges for individuals aged 25 and older seeking an associate’s degree. 

CAAT Director Benigno Cruz said community college is a great start to get through a college education “relatively free.” After getting a free associate’s degree through Michigan Reconnect, Cruz said many green transportation employers would pay for their employees to pursue higher-level degrees.

“Many people want to jump right to the university, and many of those don’t quite make it through the university,” Cruz said. “After a year or two, they drop out and return to the community colleges. They should do it the other way around.”

If you’re considering a college education for a green transportation career, here are some automotive-related programs available in Metro Detroit. Remember that many of these programs are geared toward transportation careers generally but are undoubtedly applicable to green transportation careers.

What green transportation jobs are available right now?

A broad variety of jobs are available across Michigan’s transportation industry. 

WIN data show that the state’s top five posted transportation occupations are architectural and engineering managers; transportation, storage, and distribution managers; civil engineers; compliance officers; and first-line supervisors of transportation and material moving workers. 

But, given the auto industry’s prevalence in Michigan and the industry’s ongoing shift towards technological focus, transportation employers also figure heavily in other sectors. 

While the state of Michigan, Ryder, Home Depot, General Motors, and GPAC is its five biggest transportation employers, GM is among its top five IT and advanced manufacturing employers. 

Long story short: if you want to work in green transportation, whether you are interested in hands-on work or designing software, there’s probably a job for you.

If you focus on the EV industry specifically, a similarly broad range of jobs are available. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists several in-demand occupations for the industry, including scientific research, design and development, manufacturing, EV maintenance, infrastructure development, and sales and support. For more information on specific jobs in the industry, what they pay, and pathways to them, check out these career profiles from the EV Jobs Academy.

What options are available for starting my own green transportation business?

As with job opportunities, businesses have diverse needs to fill in the green transportation sector, and they go far beyond designing and/or building EVs and/or chargers. For example, Hutchison said there’s a great need for a well-designed curriculum to train up new workers.

“Everyone right now is at that infancy stage of developing curriculum for this burgeoning technology,” he said. “Anyone who understands curriculum development, how to package it and make it look really good and engaging, would have lots of opportunities.”

If you’ve got an idea for how to fill a need in the sector with your own green transportation business, numerous resources are available to help you get started. Here are a few of them:

  • The Michigan Mobility Funding Platform, a project of the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification and MDOT, offers grants to mobility and electrification companies looking to deploy their technologies in Michigan. You can apply here for funding to deploy your technology at one of the state’s test sites or in a real-world application.
  • There is a Detroit location for Plug and Play, a Silicon Valley-based business incubator focusing on mobility and energy. The organization aims to build connections between entrepreneurs, investors, and potential clients at large corporations. More information on how to join Plug and Play is available here.
  • The Michigan Small Business Development Center offers a variety of free classes, programs, and other services for new business owners.
  • Michigan’s SmartZones, designated by the state of Michigan through the Michigan Economic Development Corp., are facilities that offer a variety of resources for tech businesses, including incubator services and networking opportunities. Several SmartZones are located in Metro Detroit; find the closest one here.
  • The Michigan Founders Fund offers networking and educational opportunities with its membership of entrepreneurs and investors, who each pledge 1% of equity, carry, or profit to a Community Impact Fund supporting charitable capital for Michigan communities.
  • Again, community college classes are an excellent resource for those seeking an introduction to running a business. Even if you’re not pursuing a full-fledged business degree, non-credit continuing education courses may be able to provide the basic knowledge you need to get started.

This Planet Detroit Climate Guide was made possible with the generous support of the GM Foundation.

Traducción por Carmen Elena Luna.

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