U.S. Automakers Comb Colleges to Engineer Industry’s Future

By Heather O'Neill

Mar. 7, 2011

Two of Detroit’s Big 3 automakers have embarked on a hiring binge in recent months, and they’re not just seeking blue-collar assembly-line workers to re-staff recently reopened facilities.

Late last year, General Motors Corp. announced the addition of 1,000 engineers during the next two years to focus on its next generation of electric vehicles, while Chrysler Corp. committed to hiring 1,000 researchers and engineers by the end of the first quarter of 2011 to help with global growth and the expansion of its small and midsize vehicle lineup.

Yet recruiters face challenges in wooing candidates to an industry and a region beset by years of financial hardship, plant closures and massive layoffs. Though American auto buyers seem to be warming again to the Detroit 3’s products, skepticism remains in and around the Motor City about its ultimate recovery—particularly among residents of Michigan who suffered through the industry’s decline that culminated in bankruptcy for GM and Chrysler.

Kristin Dziczek, director of the Program for Automotive Labor and Education and a director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research, says despite a sluggish recovery, auto companies can’t skimp if they want to entice top talent.

“For automotive engineering and technical jobs, it is quickly becoming a candidates’ market—especially for those with advanced powertrain, electrification or embedded software skills,” Dziczek said. “Any company looking to acquire talent in this market will need to have attractive economic packages as well as other job qualities that are attractive to these people.”

Dziczek said automakers must commit to hiring full-time employees rather than temporary or temp to permanent workers. The brightest talent, she said, will only be attracted by full-time work with a salary and benefits.

Potential employees also will be looking for incentives like assurances of advancement on a technical path and not just a promotion into management, as well as company support for additional training and education to develop their skills.

Dziczek added that the automakers must give their employees the freedom to innovate if they want to attract the most gifted and creative engineers.

According to Chrsysler spokesman Michael Palese, the automaker’s recruiting efforts are under way and on track to have completed hiring 1,000 new employees by the end of 2011’s first quarter. Many of the new hires are coming straight from the classroom.

“We are very aggressively recruiting at colleges and universities and are currently on approximately 35 college campuses where we have teams of employees who are working with those colleges and universities to develop different recruitment programs,” Palese said. “We are certainly working with associations like the Society of Automotive Engineers and within organizations that we have close associations with such as National Black MBA Association and Black Engineer of the Year and others to attract talented people and a diverse workforce.”

Palese says employees who were laid off from Chrysler are “welcome to apply” for the current job openings, as are other applicants. The company, he said, seeks and selects, “a diverse array of candidates who can contribute to the success of our business.”

The booming overseas auto industries aren’t a target for Chrysler, Palese said.

“There are so many people here who are looking for work, and we are working with them,” he said.

The aggressive on-campus recruiting effort received a push from newly elected Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Reinvent Michigan initiative. The newly elected governor has pledged to keep more of the state’s brightest students in the Michigan workforce after graduation.

The amount of students leaving the state in recent years was startling; in 2008, 53 percent of Michigan-native grads of the University of Michigan fled the state, according to the university.

According to Garth Motschenbacher, academic specialist for electric and computer engineering at Michigan State University, automakers have made their presence known on college campuses.

“Engineers are very hands-on and they like technology,” Motschenbacher said. “Ford had a night in November where they brought some of their new, slick automobiles on campus, including the new cruisers they are putting out to the police departments across the nation. That got a lot of attention.”

GM held an event last summer where students, faculty and staff could test-drive new vehicles, Motschenbacher said. The automaker plans to hold a similar event in the fall.

Motschenbacher said face-to-face encounters with students are as important to the recruiting process as compensation and benefits packages. While he encourages all companies he works with to meet job candidates, he believes it is especially important for automakers, whose reputations have been tarnished in recent years. Convincing students that the American auto industry is regaining its health will be the first step in the hiring process.

These students, particularly those from Michigan, “have seen the free-fall and near demise of the domestic car companies up close and personal,” Motschenbacher said. “Although students these days can be quickly engaged, they are also a brand-loyal group who has seen loyalty in the auto industry personally affect the lives of family and friends.

“If you are going to come recruit them and advertise a job, you first have to convince them that what they grew up knowing and learned is not what the future holds for them.”

Workforce Management Online, March 2011Register Now!

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