Gov. Whitmer visits campus to speak at Automotive Suppliers Symposium

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking with President Mantella, students and staff.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks with President Philomena V. Mantella, Seidman College of Business Dean Diana Lawson, students and staff members from the Van Andel Global Trade Center during the Michigan Automotive Suppliers Symposium March 9.
Image credit - Emily Zoladz

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited Grand Valley March 9, speaking to business leaders who had gathered for the 24th Michigan Automotive Suppliers Symposium.

Touting investments in job training programs and support for next-generation vehicle technologies, Whitmer told the crowd of about 170 gathered at the Pew Grand Rapids Campus’ Loosemore Auditorium she was there to talk about two of her favorite subjects: “cars and making stuff in Michigan.” 

“Our auto suppliers are an economic powerhouse,” Whitmer said. “You all know this better than anyone. Twenty-six OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and 96 of the top 100 auto suppliers in the world call Michigan home.”

Whitmer used the stage to tout her budget proposal, which includes investments in talent and economic development.

“Businesses need skilled, qualified workers to fill openings so that they can continue to grow here in Michigan,” she said. “And that's why the budget that I just introduced includes investments to put tens of thousands of our people on paths to tuition-free skills in training and higher education.”

Whitmer’s proposal calls for temporarily lowering the minimum age for the Michigan Reconnect skills training program from 25 to 21, which would open up the tuition-free program to an additional 350,000 residents.

She also noted work is under way to continue funding for the newly created Michigan Achievement Scholarship, which will provide some 2023 high school graduates with up to $5,500 per year toward college expenses.

Other programs, like the Going Pro Talent fund, continue to provide grants to companies to assist in job training.

Whitmer also touted investments in supporting battery manufacturing plants, such as the $3.5 billion factory being planned by Ford Motor Co. in Marshall that will create 2,500 new jobs.

“We know when the state builds batteries, a lot of the rest of the car will follow,” she said. “And that's why it's important that we're competing and winning these economic development opportunities.”

Gentex CEO shares strategy for innovation, talent attraction

Gentex CEO Steve Downing gestures to a crowd
Gentex CEO Steve Downing speaks to the West Michigan Auto Suppliers Symposium about innovation and talent attraction.
Image credit - Emily Zoladz

The symposium also featured speakers from suppliers and analysts covering the auto industry, including a keynote speech by Steve Downing, CEO of Zeeland-based Gentex.

Gentex makes components for the auto, aerospace, fire safety and health care industries.

Downing said attracting talent has been among Gentex’s greatest challenges – in offices and on production floors.

To become more competitive, Downing led initiatives to reward all employees who have worked at the company for at least a year with equity.

Doing so has helped build loyalty and retention. Another initiative at Gentex included creation of a childcare facility for employees that operates on two shifts.

Downing said the partnership with the Outdoor Discovery Center in Holland recognized an obstacle to employment that disproportionately affected women was finding affordable childcare. The center will have capacity for 250 children per shift, allowing parents to earn good wages while providing a safe learning environment for their kids, he said.

Gentex also implemented Spanish-speaking production lines that recognized the opportunity to tap into a talent base where English is not the first language.

Downing said Gentex’s product strategy has been to embrace a “practical approach” that is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

He said he company looked at its core competencies and sought ways to combine them in ways that add value and relevant to its customers.

The company uses a “fail fast, fail cheap” ethos in exploring innovations at places like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

“So we get product ideas. We yard sale them. It's amazing,” he said. “Consumers, OEMs, they're very good at destroying your ideas. But you find out very quickly what's gonna stick, what's not.”


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