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Jul 17, 2024

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Auto Engineers Too Few Or Just Harder To Find?

DETROIT — The shortage of engineers has been as common a lament within the auto industry as government regulations.

But is it real? A recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute argues there’s actually a glut. EPI contends that there are more American graduates in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing backgrounds than ever.

On the other side, the Manufacturing Institute recently issued a report that as many as 600,000 high-skilled manufacturing jobs are unfilled.

After interviewing many executives from automakers and suppliers, it is clear that the variety of skills needed is wider than ever.

For example, there are 20 million lines of embedded software code in vehicles today, 10 times more than at the turn of the millennium, said Ben Winter, Chrysler vice president of vehicle engineering. Developing tomorrow’s vehicles is about so much more than horsepower, torque and bending steel and aluminum into ever more aerodynamic designs.

Employers seek specific and strategic hires. They are looking for software, chemical and electrical engineers to work on vehicles with electric motors, batteries and sophisticated computing systems. It will require the auto industry to look beyond local graduates to other regions, countries and industries.

“The technologies are converging,” said Priya Playe, principal with engineering consultants P3 Group in Troy. “The same ones in cars are also in planes and phones. We must be more open-minded about borrowing. We can adopt things developed by other industries and not redo the work.”

Chrysler’s Winter said software today has eight errors for every 1,000 lines of code, which means potentially 160,000 errors in a typical vehicle. The good news is 90% of the errors are caught by the software developers and IT people.

“We need a completely different mind-set and engineer,” Winter said. “There are still 15,000 errors we need to find through our validation process.”

Carla Bailo heads research and development for Nissan Americas. She said there will be a drastic shift in the core competencies automotive engineers will need over the next five years.

“We need people who know about artificial intelligence,” she said. “We need software and chemical engineers as the car becomes a mobile appliance on wheels.”

Better times, new woes.

During the downturn, Nissan cut its engineering staff in Farmington Hills by attrition and froze hiring from 2008-11.

“In 2011, I returned from Japan to a mountain of work, and we were not staffed for it,” she said. There were four possible openings for every job candidate Nissan interviewed.

“We’re all stealing from each other,” said Bailo, who oversees 1,200 employees in Farmington Hills and taps contract workers when needed to keep program launches on schedule. She needs another 20 engineers and 10 managers in key positions.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the percentage of manufacturing workers age 55 and older has increased significantly since 2000. The looming surge of retirements has raised the urgency. There just aren’t that many young engineers on automakers’ radar screens, partly because their options are greater.

“We need to go outside to high-tech firms, telecommunications and other industries,” Bailo said. “We hired a guy from NASA who had never seen an assembly line. Building a car is like rocket science. People have no idea how complex and high-tech it is.”

Matt LePage, lead technical recruiter for GTA Staffing in Dearborn, said in 2010-11 he worked with many laid-off engineers who had been searching for a year or two. Today he’s looking for people who are already employed, often outside the industrial Midwest.

“We’re seeing a lot of them coming back to Detroit. They left, but kept roots and homes here,” LePage said.

But not all engineers want to return.

Arleta Sziler of Belle River, Ontario, did work for a number of automakers and suppliers in Detroit from 1985-2007. Her last job was working on oil pans for GM hybrids when she was laid off as part of downsizing.

She returned to school, became a financial adviser, and got a job with an insurance company. When an automaker approached her recently about an engineering job, she declined.

By Alisa Priddle, Detroit Free Press