Auto companies get creative to fill engineering jobs

Lindsay Chappell

Published: October 1, 2012 6:00 am ET

Related to this story

Topics Automotive Public Policy
Companies & Associations

DETROIT (Oct. 1, 12:45 p.m. ET) — Carla Bailo winces at what she is thinking about doing to recruit and keep automotive engineers at her company. She may offer to let them bring their pets to work.

“If it’s a little lap dog, I really don’t care,” she sighs. “If there’s anything I can do to show that auto is a great place to work, I need to do that.”

Threatened by a chronic shortage of engineers — exacerbated by years of industry restructuring — auto companies are having trouble filling job vacancies in Detroit now that the industry is coming back to health. That is particularly alarming for Detroit, a massive engineering hub for the entire industry.

To deal with the shortage, auto companies are trying new recruiting techniques and changing workplace practices. And for jobs that are still years away, they are even reaching out to schoolchildren — some as young as kindergartners — to plant the notion of an engineering career.

Bailo, Nissan North America’s senior vice president in charge of its 1,100-person technical center in suburban Detroit, is serious about the dogs.

Pet-friendly workplaces are something that free-spirited New Age powerhouse employers such as Google and Microsoft permit. Bailo and other auto executives recognize that they are competing against such employers to attract scarce engineers. She has been making the rounds benchmarking their practices to figure out how to compete — something automakers never had to worry about before.

Bailo has instructed her office building to keep its on-site gymnasium open throughout the day and into the night, rather than its past routine of being open a short time in the mornings, an hour at lunch and a short time after work.

“If you have a free hour from 2 to 3 and want to go jogging, go do it,” she says.

She has expanded lunchtime for tech center employees from one hour to 90 minutes, and told her engineers that if they need two hours to go to a child’s ballet recital, they can leave. They are now required to be in the office routinely only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They must still give her eight hours a day. But now they can come in at 6 a.m. and leave at 2 p.m., or come in at 10 and leave at 6.

The bigger question — can they work from home? — is trickier.

Theoretically, yes, Bailo says. But that would require her to buy a mountain of new laptop computers, loaded with proprietary software and costing about $1,500 apiece. She has not yet approved that expense.

North American automakers and their suppliers are back in ramp-up mode, preparing for business growth and dramatically different products and technologies. But according to many industry insiders, there simply aren’t enough qualified engineers around. After a decade of layoffs, outsourcing, salary cuts, bankruptcies and restructurings, Detroit’s automotive engineers have scattered.

“A lot of people have disappeared,” Bailo says. “They’ve left their jobs. They’ve left the auto industry. They’ve left the state of Michigan. They’ve retired. And young people have decided they don’t want to go to school to become engineers.”

Corroborating that view is Darlene Trudell, executive vice president of the Engineering Society of Detroit, a century-old professional association representing thousands of North American engineers. Trudell says the supply of automotive engineers has been dwindling for a decade, and only worsened with the crisis of 2008 and 2009.

“We have a strategic board representing a lot of employers, auto companies, manufacturers, unions and local colleges,” she says. “When I first came here in 2003, they were warning me that an engineering shortage was coming. A lot of people pooh-poohed the idea. But guess what? There is now a huge shortage of engineers here.

“The pool of available engineers is smaller. There are fewer young people applying for engineering schools, and those students who are coming out are not necessarily interested in working in automotive.”

Competing with non-automotive companies

Christian Berges may be typical of what hungry recruiters are up against.

Five years ago Berges was in charge of a $60 million development program for a Tier 1 supplier in Detroit, working 70-hour weeks and seeing no salary increases. He left the auto industry and moved with his family to Minneapolis, where he now works happily for a medical instruments company, making 30 percent more than he did in Detroit.

“I have absolutely no sympathy for the auto industry now,” Berges says. “They did this to themselves. They beat us down and made us feel like we were very disposable.”

Berges says two Detroit-area job recruiters have been trying aggressively to entice him away from Minneapolis lately. But he enjoys his newly discovered life — including his medical company’s practice of knocking off work every day at 3 p.m. — too much to leave.

“I’ve been offered considerable sums to go back,” he says. “It’s not going to happen.”

Faced with obstacles like that, the Detroit engineering society and some automotive companies are drilling even deeper into potential future engineers, visiting Michigan high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools in hopes of sparking the flame of an automotive career.

A complete version of this story is available at www.autonews.com.


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Auto companies get creative to fill engineering jobs

Lindsay Chappell

Published: October 1, 2012 6:00 am ET

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