Tressia Mills   Andre Smith Photo

Tressia Mills. Andre Smith Photo

Every year during the Detroit Auto Show, most of the focus is on the glitz and glamour of the new cars. After all, it’s the attraction of seeing all those shiny new machines up close and personal that draws the crowds back to the show year after year. And car companies depend on that attraction, bordering on lust, to prompt bigger and better auto sales driven by properly seduced customers who simply will not be able to resist what they see.

But as anyone associated with the manufacturing side of automobiles will tell you, quite a bit goes into developing that shiny new machine before it is gets to the place where it is deemed worthy of promotion. A big part of that production has to do with one of the most essential aspects of new car production, namely safety. Because it doesn’t much matter how pretty a car looks if it’s a deathtrap.

This is where auto workers like Tressia Mills comes in. Mills, who has worked with General Motors for the past 17 years, is a safety performance engineer. In other words, Mills uses her background in mechanical engineering to continually improve the familiar aspects of auto safety, such as seatbelts and airbags, to the still-under-wraps restraint enhancements that Mills still is not authorized to discuss publicly, despite a reporter’s best attempts to get her to spill the beans.

Mills began her career at General Motors as a college graduate, but her interest in the company actually began earlier when she worked as an intern after attending an internship event that GM hosted at Cobo Hall in 1996. Designed to attract career interest from young people such as herself, Mills got hooked – by the crash test dummies.

“The one thing I remember was the dummies, and I said ‘You know what? I want to do that. “

As an intern, Mills was working in the test lab on transmissions, which she liked OK, but the crash dummies represented something more fulfilling.

“I liked transmissions, I liked the hands-on aspect of it, but with dummies I could save a life,” she said. As an engineer, she was fascinated by how something as apparently simple as a dummy could be such a critical aspect of designing and engineering a car. Because if a car does not pass the crash dummy test then that car is not ready for prime time.

“I like how things come together, I like how things work. My background is mechanical engineering, so I ask the ‘what’, and I ask the ‘why’.”

Mills is a Detroit native, and is quick to point out that she still lives in the city. A graduate of Wayne State University and McKenzie High School who has worked in the auto industry most of her professional life, Mills also voiced a strong preference for trucks when it comes to what she looks for personally when it comes to getting behind the wheel.

“I actually like trucks. They’re just big, you know? A car is a car, right? But when you’re in a truck, it’s the power. It’s the prestige, it’s the image.”

Speaking of image, Mills also recruits for GM as well as provides mentoring for new hires at the company. She is currently mentoring two new hires, and she says the opportunity also puts her in touch with students, from college and even high school, who may have an interest in pursuing a career in the automotive industry. Naturally she tries to get them to consider GM as their first choice, pointing out the opportunities she believes the company has given her.

But wherever they may choose to go, Mills says she tells the young people she meets to “be true to yourself. Know what your strengths are and really focus on those strengths. If you’re really highly skilled in mathematics, or science and technology, by all means pursue that opportunity. See where it leads.”

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