After hiring lull, auto industry battling Silicon Valley for best college engineering talent

Posted on September 21, 2012

The auto industry is back on campus and hiring a different breed of engineer — those who can help invent the next generation of complex software that pushes the envelope on m.p.g., clean emissions and crash avoidance technologies.

The Detroit Three, Asian and European automakers and suppliers find themselves in a new recruitment arena battling Amazon, Apple, Facebook, SpaceX and others for the top software engineering talent.

For the auto industry, recruiting can be challenging because many students are drawn to an entrepreneurial environment in Silicon Valley. Others are skeptical of the auto industry’s boom-and-bust cycles. They’ve been scarred because parents, friends or neighbors lost jobs in the 2008-09 crisis, career advisers said.

Detroit won with Jeffrey Waldner, a University of Victoria in British Columbia engineering student. He became excited about hybrid technology after participating in a national competition called EcoCAR, which General Motors watches for young talent.

He learned that auto engineering was a digital game and took a job as a hybrid control algorithms engineer at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds.

Before EcoCar, Waldner, like his friends, was probably headed toward a job with a major tech giant, he said. His university didn’t offer automotive engineering courses, and his peers never talked about old line manufacturing as an option.

“I realized how cool the work they’re doing was,” he said. “I took for granted the type of technology (needed to build a car) and what it took to get a car running, especially a hybrid.”

The fight for top young talent shows how a specific segment of college students are getting overwhelmed with attention from prospective employers, despite a generally sluggish economy that has left millions of their classmates behind.

Career advisers at Michigan universities report some employers boosting salaries for entry-level engineers, expanding internship programs and offering jobs to some students earlier in their senior years.

“They’re all coming after this same group of students,” said Jim Turnquist, director of Michigan Technological University’s career services office. “They’re putting on their shows to get the attention of the students.”

In some cases, the competition sparks a bidding war for the top 10% of students whose technical skills are transferable to many different industries, said Garth Motschenbacher, Michigan State University’s director of employer relations.

It’s not uncommon for some students to have a choice between the Detroit Three and a Silicon Valley giant like Facebook, he said.

Already paying off

The auto companies’ efforts are already paying dividends.

At MSU, about 11% of 2011-12 grads went to the auto industry, up from 5% a few years ago. At Michigan Tech, about 8% took jobs with auto companies, up from 4%-5% during the industry’s crisis in 2008 and 2009.

To be sure, Michigan universities have long been a key source of talent for the auto industry. Nearly 13,000 graduates of the University of Michigan, MSU and Wayne State University already work for the Detroit Three, according to an Anderson Economic Group report.

The University Research Corridor, an alliance of the state’s three research universities, produces more than 3,600 graduates annually “who are ready for technical careers in the auto industry,” the report concluded. Community colleges also are delivering talent for the industry.

URC executive director Jeff Mason said the auto industry has identified Michigan’s top universities as “fertile ground” for recruiting.

“With the resurgence of the industry and more emphasis on tech within the automobile — whether it’s infotainment or crash avoidance and what’s getting loaded in the vehicles — young people are looking at this as a viable opportunity and a viable industry,” Mason said.

Still, pitching the auto industry to students can be hard. Several students said they want to know that their work is going to make a difference. They recoil at the sight of a top-down culture and hate bureaucracy.

“Students are naïve enough to think they should be speaking to people at the top,” Motschenbacher said.

Auto companies have responded by tweaking their co-op and internship programs.

“Our technology leaders have really focused on giving meaningful engineering challenges for the students, and we encourage mentoring with management exposure,” said Al Deane, chief technology officer of supplier TI Automotive.

GM Vice President for Global Engineering John Calabrese said there’s a compelling reason why top software students and professionals should choose the auto industry.

“Quite candidly, it’s more exciting because you get to invent the future versus designing two lines of code,” he said. “You can be a computer science engineer and work in the auto industry, as well as work for Google or for Apple.”

‘Kids with choices’

In the past, automakers had easy access to talent from places such as the former General Motors Institute, which long ago broadened its mission, changing its name to Kettering University in 1998. Now, with September job fairs and recruiting events in high gear, they’re fighting for talent.

“There are kids with choices,” Motschenbacher said. “Every team wants them. Those are the kids that line up the offers and really get to pick and choose.”

Jim Turnquist, director of Michigan Tech’s career center, said he expects many auto companies to make job offers in November and December this year — for students who won’t graduate until May. In the past, he said, the offers came in March.

“And they get pressure — and I mean pressure — to accept their offers,” Turnquist said.

Students’ options include rapidly growing companies that weren’t even around a few years ago, such as California-based Space Exploration Technologies, which recently docked a private spacecraft with the International Space Station.

SpaceX, created in 2002 by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, has hired nearly three dozen U-M engineering graduates in the last few years. SpaceX has even hired several students directly from the renowned U-M Solar Car team, whose sponsors, including Ford and GM, pay for access to recruit students.

“SpaceX presents a new challenge for them and a lot of them say their work environment is similar to what we have on the team,” said U-M senior A.J. Trublowski, the solar car team’s head strategist.

Some talented students are willing to listen to the auto industry’s pitch because they want to contribute to the recovery of GM and Chrysler.

“We want those students to know those challenges we face as a company,” said Sean Vander Elzen, GM’s talent acquisition leader. “They want to see their work efforts make a difference early in their career.”

Other students are more difficult for traditional manufacturers to reach. U-M engineering student Duncan Miller, 21, has completed internships at Lockheed Martin, NASA and SpaceX. He said he would consider developing engines for an auto company. But the pitch would have to be perfect.

“I’ve never applied to auto industry jobs,” he said. “That’s not to say that I won’t. But it’s not what I find motivating.”

Nicole Dolan, a 2010 U-M computer engineering graduate who completed two software internships with GM, took a job in Seattle with She said she’d be interested in returning to Michigan someday to develop data visualization software for GM’s Corvette Racing. But for now, she likes the entrepreneurial, flexible environment at Amazon.

“If I have a question, I can just stand up and go over and talk to somebody,” Dolan said. “When I worked at GM in the past, there can be a lot of meetings or a lot of overhead.”

Other talents sought

Automakers don’t just need engineers that understand horsepower and aerodynamics. For example, GM plans to hire up to 500 workers at a recently launched software center in Austin, Texas, home to IBM, Samsung and Facebook offices. GM plans to work with more than a dozen universities and colleges in the Austin area to recruit recent grads.

“We intend to win their hearts and minds first (about) what we’re trying to accomplish and the fact that this is a great place,” GM Chief Information Officer Randy Mott said.

Many recent college grads who accept a job with auto companies already have worked for the industry as an intern or through a co-op program. The auto companies say those programs give them an edge in the recruiting process because the programs expose students to opportunities and undercut their previous assumptions.

GM recruits from national programs and competitions, such as EcoCAR, which involves competitive teams of up to 100 students from about 15 universities.

Georgette Borrego Dulworth, director of talent acquisition and diversity for Chrysler Group, said the automaker assigns a high “caliber of work” to its interns to assess talent and to impress prospective hires. Chrysler expanded its internship program to 400 students this summer.

“Let’s be honest, that is our feeder pool,” she said. “We don’t have interns for the sake of having interns. We have interns for the opportunity of making a potential hire.”

Contact Nathan Bomey: 313-223-4743

More Details: 5 tips for college students seeking an auto engineering job

1. Consider internships and cooperative work opportunities, and stay in touch with influential people you meet.

2. Leverage your university’s career affairs department.

3. Compile connections strategically on LinkedIn.

4. Highlight skills in highly desired areas such as software development, electrical engineering and controls engineering.

5. Monitor auto jobs websites.

Websites for Michigan auto engineering jobs:

General Motors:






Michigan Economic Development Corp.:

Michigan Works:

Other: and

More Details: Specialized auto training programs

Many Michigan educational institutions and nonprofits provide training for the specialized technological needs of the auto industry. Here are a few:

• University of Michigan’s Advanced Battery Coalition for Drivetrains (ABCD) Collaborative Research Lab: This lab, formed in partnership with General Motors, offers technical battery education to advanced engineering students.

• Wayne State University’s electric-drive vehicle engineering labs: Formed with a U.S. government grant, this program offers curriculum specially designed to meet the evolving alternative propulsion needs of the auto industry.

• Michigan State University’s Composite Vehicle Research Center: This program seeks advancements in material composition and design, including lightweight improvements to help the auto industry boost fuel economy.

• Kettering University’s co-op programs: The university, formerly General Motors Institute, is widely regarded for its engineering co-op programs, which allow students to work directly with major auto companies while going to school.

• Michigan Technological University’s hybrid electric vehicle curriculum: The program is one of the few offering classes in alternative propulsion engineering.

• Western Michigan University’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Design and Simulation: The CaViDS immerses students in computer-based engineering design.

• Michigan’s community colleges: Many have specialized certification programs for people interested in getting into the auto industry.

Nathan Bomey, Detroit Free Press