Flying Under the Radar: Detroit is Moving Defense Jobs Forward

There are more than trucks and cars coming out of America’s motor city. Detroit is moving forward as a major defense and homeland security hub. The recent award of nearly $1 billion in contracts for the development of the Army’s Infantry Fighting Vehicle is only increasing the defense industry footprint in the area. Opportunities for cleared professionals are on the rise, especially for experienced engineers and program managers.

Long known as a center for automotive innovation, you might be surprised to hear that Detroit is also a major research and development center in its own right. Universities and academic centers of excellence turn out thousands of skilled workers each year and more than 3,000 patents – many related to the defense and federal sectors – are filed annually.

“The forces of innovation tend to move quicker here in Detroit,” said Trevor Pawl, program director for the office of economic development with the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. Other industries – including plastics, robotics and armaments – are actually spin-offs from the auto industry that have taken advantage of Detroit’s strength in crossindustry collaboration.

A defense powerhouse

The Detroit area, including neighboring Macomb County, is home to nearly 500 companies doing defense and homeland security business. Small businesses and large corporations such as L-3 Communications, Osh Kosh and the Lakeshore Group have made this area their headquarters for years.

“While there’s a lot of concern about the defense budget, there’s still a pretty strong defense budget,” said Don Kotchman, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Military Industrial Association. “There will be opportunities for companies that are innovative, responsible and affordable.”

The area has long been buoyed by the presence of the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Command (TARDEC) as well as the TACOM Life Cycle Management Command (LCMC), both located in Warren, Mich. The complex these facilities sit on makes up what’s known as the Detroit Arsenal. The area is home to other military facilities including Selfridge Air National Guard Base, one of the few military installations in the country with all military branches represented on the base.

The area benefited from the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), with approximately 1,200 new workers moving to the Detroit area as a result. BRAC also created opportunities for local business, with a new 200,000 square foot TACOM facility creating roughly $75 million in construction business.

The greater Detroit region was home to more than 100,000 defense jobs in 2010, and the state of Michigan saw over 11,000 defense contracts worth $4.4 billion in 2010 alone. The Detroit region was awarded over half of those contracts.

Detroit isn’t an overnight defense sensation, however. The military and defense industry has been a major part of the economy for decades; in recent years the community has been working even harder to ensure that defense sector growth doesn’t just come and go based on the economic tides, but is an enduring part of the region’s industrial base, said Pawl.

Expanding opportunities for cleared professionals

Amid a difficult defense budget cycle, the region’s influx of new business in the form of nearly $1 billion in defense contracts to facilities headquartered within 25 miles of Detroit is good news. BAE Systems Land and Armaments, which is in the midst of a $58.4 million expansion project in Sterling Heights, and General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. were recently awarded contracts through the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle Program. Over the next 24 months the companies will be creating designs for the new Army Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

As much as 30 to 50 percent of the contract award could trickle down to sub-contractors and small businesses, said Kotchman. And while there’s no guarantee the contract will bring an influx of new job opportunities, it stabilizes job prospects in engineering, as well as support functions such as finance and program management.

“Engineers have always been in demand in the Detroit region, but with new opportunities in robotics, security, networking and graphic design, the diversity of employment opportunities is expanding,” said Evan Lesser, managing director of

A diverse city with diverse opportunities

In addition to a skilled workforce, Michigan also offers a high wage-peremployee with the average per-worker wage at $78,736. Couple a high wage with Detroit’s low cost of living and low home prices and it’s an increasingly attractive place for security-cleared professionals looking for opportunities in the defense industry. And while Detroit offers significant opportunities for engineers and technical trades, you may be surprised to learn of the growing job sector in fields such as sales, public relations and other industries.

Individuals who move to the Detroit area from other regions are often surprised by what they encounter – including a diverse culture, major sports teams and a thriving arts and fashion scene. A great place for both singles and families, Detroit has worked hard to attract – and retain – the thousands of engineers coming out of local universities as well as new transplants to the area, said Tammy Carnrike, chief operations officer with the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, herself a transplant to the Detroit area from upstate New York.

Diversity is the new theme across the defense sector in Detroit, from the expanding number of suppliers and small businesses in the region to the success of the major automotive centers in diversifying their product base to facilitate defense industry business. With new contracts and a continued emphasis on providing the military with the best, safest vehicles and armaments, Detroit can be expected to remain on the defense map for a long time to come.

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Lindy Kyzer is the director of content at Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email Interested in writing for Learn more here.. @LindyKyzer