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Battling it Out: Automakers Jockey for a New Generation of Talent  

September 8, 2022 Paul Eisenstein

Paul A. Eisenstein | Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, The Detroit Bureau

A decade ago, when General Motors went looking for eager young talent, it knew where to turn. Schools like Kettering University, up in Flint, the University of Michigan and Indiana’s Purdue University, could be counted on to turn out a steady stream of graduates skilled in mechanical engineering. 

But these days, cars are more like computers on wheels, filled with microprocessors and requiring millions of lines of code. And that transformation is accelerating as the industry migrates to battery-electric vehicles filled with high-tech features like GM’s hands-free Super Cruise system. 

So, when the automaker needed to fill 7,000 jobs earlier this year, it spread its net significantly further than ever, according to Chief Talent Officer Cyril George. 

“We’ve become university agnostic. In the latest batch, we hired from 500 universities,” George said in a telephone interview. And, looking forward, he added, “We have to change the way we go after talent.” 

While there’ll remain a need for mechanical engineers, said David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, the industry is ramping down development of internal combustion technology and shifting to battery-electric propulsion. And there’s a fast-growing need for those who can develop infotainment and autonomous vehicle technologies and write the underlying code. 

But the auto industry isn’t alone. That’s the same sort of talent Apple, Google and other companies in Silicon Valley, Austin and other high-tech centers have long chased. 

“They’re known as software companies and have more visibility in the sector,” said Kristine Coogan, managing director at consultancy KPMG. And those tech firms have had a sexier image than old line automotive manufacturers, which has often made it difficult to recruit top talent, she added. 

“It’s a fairly large challenge,” according to Coogan, and one requiring the auto industry to “use unconventional ways to find talent.” 

Automakers say they have no choice but to take that challenge. And the recent number of new hires suggests they’re having some success. 

It has helped for manufacturers to bring in big names with big reputations and plenty of connections, such as Doug Fields. Until recently the head of the Apple car program, he was poached last September and will now be running Ford’s advanced technology efforts. Several insiders, speaking on background, say Fields has been able to recruit some of his former team members and reach out to some of the schools and other sources that he had turned to while at Apple. 

“It’s a war for talent,” said GM talent chief George, and it has required the automaker “to change the fundamental way we go after talent.” 

That not only requires expanding the number of schools the carmaker targets, but opening up to potential recruits who might not have a degree but can demonstrate significant experience in areas of demand. Coogan calls that “skill-based, rather than requirement-based hiring.” Automakers are learning that good high-tech workers can be “the most expensive talent” they hire, according to Ford chief executive officer Jim Farley. 

But industry recruiters also have recognized that they have to consider what George calls “the employee value proposition.” That includes not only pay and benefits but promotional opportunities. Talent teams are finding strong interest among younger applicants in the potential to be involved in creating breakthrough products, and having a positive impact on society. 

The COVID pandemic has shaken the job market up, millions of workers taking part in what has been described as “the Great Resignation.” Perhaps surprisingly, the pandemic has also had at least one positive impact on the auto industry recruitment push, according to Coogan. 

“Software talent was one of the most vocal in wanting to work remote,” she noted, and by giving workers that flexibility – even as some Silicon Valley giants begin requiring workers return to their cubicles — that has helped with automotive recruitment efforts.Automakers are becoming ever more creative. GM has developed software that analyzes an applicant’s records, often spotting potential jobs that the recruit hasn’t applied for. 

But the talent war is only likely to intensify, experts agree, as the auto industry continues accelerating its high-tech push.