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Recruiting Against the Valley

Automakers vie for top tech talent

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

Pages 30-31

An entry-level employee at Chrysler Group LLC is only seven levels removed from Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne. This is a selling point made clear when the company’s campus recruiters visit universities to tell its story to graduating engineers, IT specialists and others completing studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as “STEM” fields.

“In a flatter organization such as ours, our people have significant exposure to senior management,” explained Georgette Borrego Dulworth, Chrysler’s director of talent acquisition and diversity.

It is important that such a message be communicated to job seekers because Chrysler, along with its automaking brethren, is in a fierce battle for tech talent to fill an ever-growing pipeline. And the competition extends far beyond cross-town OEM rivals to startups and large tech companies in Silicon Valley where big names like Facebook and Google have seen enormous success at luring top talent to join their ranks.

“Today’s students are very interested in Internet companies, particularly smaller scale companies that have a start-up, entrepreneurial-type feel,” noted Carla Bailo, Nissan senior vice president for research and development. “Everyone is interested in becoming a part of the next Google or Facebook.”

This competition comes at a time when automakers are in serious need of STEM talent to drive the next generation of automotive technology. For its part, Chrysler has more than 1,000 open positions in areas ranging from engineering to IT to finance and accounting at all levels.

“We’re looking at individuals with technical skills to fill positions in IT, powertrain engineering, design, product development, electrification and propulsion,” Borrego Dulworth said. “The Valley may attract tech talent, but it’s important for those considering technical careers to understand that automotive design, development and manufacturing are on the cutting edge of technology on a regular basis.

“Today’s automakers are not the car companies of the past where you could expect to get grease under your nails. Our plants are clean and bright and systematized. The auto industry provides an incredible career for someone of a technical mindset. You get to see millions of your product on the road. That’s a badge of honor.”

Likewise Bailo and her colleagues are on a mission to make job seekers understand the depth and breadth of the automotive technologies not only being contemplated, but also made real on a daily basis at Nissan.

“Nissan has a comprehensive portfolio of vehicle connected services technologies in the works,” she said. “The car is becoming an extension of the driver, and we need the car to behave and think like a person. This runs the gamut from information technology, alternative powertrains, connected vehicle cloud infrastructure, battery and fuel cell research, et cetera.

“What many college students are not aware of is that we’re developing revolutionary autonomous drive in multiple vehicles and expect those vehicles to be on the road by 2020.”

It’s a similar message that is being touted by Brandy Goolsby, a global commercial vehicle business and product strategy analyst at Ford, who serves as lead recruiter for her employer at the National Black MBA Association’s annual conference.

“A car used to be strictly a mechanical device, now it’s a communication device,” explained Goolsby, herself an electrical engineer by training. “You can use voice commands to text or to make a call. Ford has created multiple generations of its SYNC technology. We’re working on active safety precautions like lane departure warnings, collision warnings and vehicle self-parking.”

Julie A. Fream, president and CEO of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association (OESA) based in Troy, indicates that it’s not that the automotive industry lacks exciting, cutting-edge opportunities in technology, but rather that it has an image problem.

“Working in the automotive industry is just not perceived as ‘fun’ or perhaps as dynamic as the tech industry,” Fream said. “We need to do a better job of communicating how fast technology is moving in the auto industry and how rapidly we expect things to change.”

Working with Deloitte, OESA created a video contest known as “Generation Auto” soliciting college students across the United States and Canada to create and submit short videos highlighting the diverse aspects of the auto industry that make it an attractive career option.

“The way to advertise our industry as a cool place to work is now through social media channels like YouTube and Instagram, not traditional methods of advertising,” Fream explained.

Laura Kurtz, manager of U.S. recruiting at Ford, would concur.

“At Ford we’re focused on telling engineers about the advanced technology and exciting products they would work on at Ford,” she said. “We are spreading the message via social media channels such as Ford Careers on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.”

Yet while social media is one tactic in the recruitment arsenal, it is by far not the only one. Chrysler is focused on ensuring multiple touch points with students on campuses where it recruits.

Rather than focusing its efforts on a university’s career fair open to any employer, Chrysler hosts its own career fair on campus where students are invited to mingle with other students who have interned with Chrysler, and with engineers and IT specialists currently working there. The automaker also brings cars and simulation trailers to campus for students to get inside and explore, and maintains a presence at university sporting events.

This summer, Chrysler will welcome 500 interns to the area who during their time in Michigan will enjoy outings to a Detroit Tigers game, a plant tour and a chance to drive Chrysler vehicles at the test track. In this way, job seekers get to see what it is like not only to work for a major automaker, but also what it is like to live and play in Southeast Michigan.

Beyond recruiting recent graduates, OEMs and suppliers are finding a separate challenge in attracting experienced technical talent. Fream noted that OESA members frequently face the challenge of identifying engineers or technical sales people with five to 10 years of experience.

“Companies are doing more to retain talent rather than lose it at that five to 10 year mark,” Fream said. “They are presenting their people with more opportunities for development as they hit the three to five year mark.”

This is exactly the approach Chrysler is taking.

“Research shows that millennials change jobs every four to five years,” Borrego Dulworth said. “We have adjusted our messaging, so that employees know that a career at Chrysler can provide variety sooner without having to leave and rebuild your network in a new company. There are so many opportunities here to build on your expertise.”

And veterans and novices alike can appreciate the strides automakers and suppliers are making to ensure positive work-life integration, something tech giants are famous for.

“Our OESA members are realizing they must adapt for this generation,” Fream noted. “What worked for boomers or even Gen X will not work for millennials. To that end our members are offering flex time, telecommuting options and more employee-friendly environments.”

Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann is a metro Detroit freelance writer.