Cool kids rule! (and they may save Detroit)

June 12, 2014, 11:51 AM UTC
contact Armin harris
Kyle Bean for Fortune

Here’s a twist in our nation’s long-running saga of high unemployment rates: With the right education and training, young workers can call their own shots. These cool kids rule–even in a job market that (in their lingo) sucks.

I’m not just talking about those sought-after grads toting their Ivy League degrees to Wall Street or Silicon Valley. I was in Houston a few months back and met a pair of college seniors who had just pocketed six-figure job offers: Geology degree meets oil boom.

The latest Manpower survey shows a whopping 40% of U.S. employers complaining of a talent shortage. The hardest jobs to fill, as in past years, are skilled trades–a reminder that we sorely need vocational schools and community colleges more in sync with 21st-century employer demands.

Perhaps nowhere in America is that skills gap more painfully felt than in Michigan. Yes, Michigan–home to a bankrupt metropolis and the eighth-highest unemployment rate in the country. Already the auto industry says it has a growing need for workers trained in mechatronics–a field that combines mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering. It’s not unheard-of for a 23-year-old without a college degree to earn $90,000 and travel the world programming robots.

But Michigan is having trouble recruiting workers with the right vocational skills and college degrees. Detroit may churn out increasingly high-tech vehicles–portals on wheels, if you will–but young people see the “hot” careers elsewhere: the New York-Boston corridor, the Southeast, and the Bay Area, according to a new survey commissioned by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. Only 9% of young people outside Michigan would consider an automotive-related career. (Full disclosure: I served as a paid moderator at the chamber’s annual policy conference.)

EAS.06.30.14-Source: Detroit Regional Chamber

Not only that, but Detroit evokes words like “dead/declining,” “fragile/insecure,” and “unethical”–the latter a nod to the reputation hit the auto industry has suffered with the disclosures of deaths linked to delayed GM recalls. The state’s auto industry is also viewed as unfriendly to women–GM’s appointment of Mary Barra as CEO notwithstanding–and slow and stodgy toward pay and career advancement for everyone.

Today’s top talent values flattened hierarchies, teamwork, and open-plan workspaces. With the exception of Quicken Loans, with its brazenly colorful headquarters, such work environments are rare in the Motor City. And young people aren’t as emotionally tied to cars as they once were. They rent Zipcars or call ride-sharing services when they need a lift. This attitude shift isn’t just hurting sales. It’s a potential recruitment problem. (For more, see “The end of driving.”)

Finally, top young talent these days is looking for a sense of purpose in their career choices. If they think they are part of a mission to, say, reduce the nation’s carbon footprint or provide transport to billions of up-and-coming global poor, that’s one thing. But building Buicks for Mom and Dad is less appealing.

Detroit has aspirations to become a high-tech, entrepreneurial hub. Boosters such as J.P. Morgan Chase–which just announced that it is investing $100 million in everything from blight removal to job training–are betting on the city’s future.

Right now, the city is missing what Harvard professor Michael Porter calls a “cluster” of interconnected businesses and academic centers big enough to attract an inflow of startups. Even beyond Detroit, the state lacks a culture of risk taking. While entrepreneurship “is in our DNA,” says Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, Michigan needs to support people when they fail. After all, he notes, it took Henry Ford three tries to hit pay dirt.

Those are all serious strikes against producing a culture of cool that attracts top talent–whether to start a company or program a robot. But where else can you buy a 7,700-square-foot mansion for half a million dollars? Besides, today’s disrupters like nothing better than betting on an underdog.

This story is from the June 30, 2014 issue of  Fortune.