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.

Lindsay Chappell|Workforce

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.

Blue jeans at Conti

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.

At Continental Automotive Systems, the U.S. unit of the German electronics, brake and tire supplier, the human resources department recently embraced the idea of permitting blue jeans once a week, says Ann Baker-Zainea, Continental’s manager for North American staffing.

The suburban Detroit employer also has begun allowing engineers to work from home two days a month.

“That might not sound like such a big deal,” Baker-Zainea says, reflecting on the evolving national economy of private contractors and insurance sales reps working from their dining room tables. “But for a traditional German engineering company — believe me, it’s a big deal.”

To recruit engineers, Continental is casting a wider net, talking to candidates in the medical and defense industries, meeting with engineers in California, Texas and Florida. The supplier also is putting the final touches on a new concierge service to make life easier for employees. The staff would provide lifestyle assistance, such as helping find a kennel to board a pet during an overseas trip; providing lawn mowing service when work hours cut into home time; opening an on-site dry cleaner; and arranging child care when a project runs overtime.

The company has about 165 engineering openings to fill.

“Most of the people we want to hire are probably currently employed somewhere else,” Baker-Zainea says. “The old days of being able to just post a job opening and fill it are gone.”

Her lament is widely expressed across the United States. But in Detroit, with its engineering and manufacturing-oriented economy, the problem is acute.

Engineers ‘disappeared’

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.”

She recounts that in 2009, the society held a job fair to help bring together employers and badly needed engineers. Thirty-one companies attended the fair, with 3,000 job openings. Only 1,389 engineers were available to consider the positions.

This year the society held another fair. This time, 51 companies came seeking still more job candidates. Only 613 engineers showed up.

The society now plans another fair for Oct. 29, and Trudell estimates there will be more than 50 companies with as many as 5,000 positions to fill.

“Where did all the engineers go?” she ponders. “Or more importantly, how do we get them back?”

Back to Michigan?

To address the shortage, Michigan last year launched a program it calls MichAGAIN. It is a campaign to travel the country in search of engineers and other skilled technical people who left Michigan to pursue careers elsewhere. The goal: persuade them to move back.

“The need to attract talent into Michigan has never been greater,” says Amy Cell, senior vice president of talent enhancement at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “We think there are a lot of people who would move back if presented with the chance.”

A separate initiative called LiveWorkDetroit! has begun inviting busloads of college engineering students from as far away as Notre Dame University — in South Bend, Ind., about 200 miles from Detroit — to the city to show them that as a place to live and work, it is nicer than they probably think.

Cell recently met with three Detroit companies to discuss expanding LiveWorkDetroit! to older engineers. If pursued, the plan would bring engineers from around the country, with their spouses, to Detroit to line them up with real-estate professionals and local school representatives to help them picture life as an engineer in Detroit.

But some engineers driven out of town by the auto collapse of 2008-09 say they will never return.

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.

Another problem: As the industry suffered over the past few years, many engineering-oriented parents steered their children away from automotive careers. Companies reduced or eliminated school internship and apprentice programs. The pipeline of young people got broken.

At one traditional source of Detroit’s auto engineers, Michigan State University, enrollment of engineering students dropped from 3,800 a decade ago to around 2,400 in 2009.

It is rising again, says Garth Motschenbacher, the university’s director of employer engagement, but the numbers are buoyed by young people interested in fields such as telecommunications and computers. Motschenbacher says some automotive companies that scaled back on engineering recruitment in recent years, such as Chrysler and Robert Bosch, are returning to campus with a vengeance. But they now must compete for students’ attention with the likes of Microsoft and Google.

Continental also is stepping up its school recruiting efforts — even talking to elementary schoolers about the pizazz of the auto field.

“We need to position ourselves for the future,” says Continental’s Trisha Boehler, whose HR title of “senior employer branding specialist” reflects the new emphasis on shaping how an automotive engineering career looks. “If we can show them some of the fun stuff we’re working on, we can still capture them.”

Other companies are broadening their search. Nissan, which hopes to fill 100 engineering spots over the next year, is actively recruiting young engineers from schools in the South, including Tennessee Tech and Vanderbilt University, as well as in Georgia and South Carolina to work in Detroit.

But the company also is looking into different areas of engineering.

“Until a few years ago, we were looking for mostly mechanical engineers and a few electrical,” Bailo says. “We’re still looking for those people. But now the type of work we need to do is changing. Our technologies are changing. Our cars are changing.

“Today we need biomedical engineers who can work on the safety and ergonomics issues we’re facing. We need their help on the psychological issues of how drivers react to different menus and components. And we desperately need chemical engineers now because we’re working on fuel cells and lightweight materials.

“When you start looking for those people, you’re not competing with the same old companies,” she says. “We’re suddenly competing for people with oil and gas companies, with the paint and adhesives industry, and even with pharmaceutical companies.

“That’s a whole different spin on what type of engineer we need for the future.”

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