As GM electrifies, it looks for -- and benefits from -- new recruits

DETROIT -- At the Automotive News Green Car Conference, the “Electrifying Vehicles” panelists were asked whether they were able to find and recruit the engineers with the needed skill sets.

Michael Crane of supplier Continental AG said it was a challenge, in part to convince them to come to metro Detroit. If you were setting up this industry on a greenfield site, he said, would you come here or to outside Austin or somewhere in Colorado?

But Micky Bly, the guy in charge of the Chevy (sorry, Chevrolet) Volt, disagreed.

If you stick with traditional recruiting models, he said, yes, it's a challenge. But his predecessor on the extended-range electric Volt moved General Motors into a different space. Working with the Department of Energy, he helped to set up an EcoCar competition that has drawn entries from 19 universities around the country.

That led them to nontraditional universities such as Mississippi State. GM had never recruited from there. But that school won the competition three out of four years, and last week won again with an extended-range diesel, he said.

“Once we found those nontraditional universities,” he said, GM had no problem getting the skill sets it needs. He said GM currently has 100 openings for electrifying-vehicles engineers and 400 or 500 resumes. Engineering students “want to work in this space,” making environmentally friendlier vehicles, he added.

A couple of thoughts:

• The first time I heard of Mississippi State, it was at Honda. I met one of their engineers in Japan who had studied aeronautics there. In fact, scratch very deeply into any Japanese automaker, and you'll find several engineers folks who wanted to or did study aeronautics, but went into automotive because Japan had no aerospace industry. Can you imagine the quality of engineering talent at the Detroit 3 if they didn't have to compete against Lockheed, Boeing and Martin Marietta for the top grads?

• I remember a story from a reporter for an engineering magazine reporter whom I met back about 1992. He had studied engineering at a university (I forget which one) in the Chicago area. About the third week of class, the professor sighed and said, “Ok, how many of you want to work in automotive?”

Two-thirds of the class raised their hands.

“Time for a reality check,” the prof said. “Out of every 10 engineers the Big 3 will hire this year, eight will come from Big 10 conference schools. Of those, five or six will come from Michigan, Michigan State, or Purdue. So all of you here are competing for just two non-Big 10 slots. And you're up against engineers from Stanford, MIT, Washington, and every other engineering school in the country. You might want to rethink your career plans.”

I can't prove that going back to the same schools year after year led to inbred thinking at the Detroit 3. But I believe going to new schools such as Mississippi State can't hurt the Detroit 3's willingness to consider new ideas.

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