How a supplier, school breed engineering talent

MILWAUKEE -- If you look at the job listings at Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and others, you'll find dozens of openings for electrical engineers who can design, develop, test and calibrate batteries and electric and hybrid vehicles.

Electrical engineering is a hot career today and will be for the foreseeable future. Automakers are bolstering their core in-house electrical engineering talent to help them meet the federally mandated 54.5-mpg fuel economy standard coming in 2025.

And the need for electrical engineers is not just a North American issue. It's European as well. Euro 6 standards call for further reductions of C02 from gasoline-powered vehicles and NOx, or oxides of nitrogen, from diesels.

By the end of the decade, some form of electrification, be it a hybrid drivetrain, a start-stop system or an enhanced battery than can run more of a car's systems, probably is going to be needed in just about every vehicle sold here and in Europe.

Automakers have set up engineering programs and sponsorships at most of the nation's major engineering universities so they can get first dibs on fresh talent. Automakers are looking everywhere for electrical engineers. For example, during the public days at the Detroit auto show here in January, Ford set up a booth hoping to attract engineering applicants.

Where does that leave suppliers?

Well, Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc., one of the major producers of lithium ion batteries for electrified vehicles, isn't trolling for castoffs.

For a young college graduate, working for a supplier whose name is not well known among the general public probably doesn't have same cachet as being able to brag that you are engineer at Tesla, Toyota or Chrysler. But JCI has created a program at the University of Milwaukee that gives students a complete immersion into battery industry as well as hands-on experience with state-of-the-art technology.

During a tour of JCI's Energy Advancement Center at the school on Tuesday, I saw students assembling lithium ion batteries and working alongside a custom-made machine that places the thin chemical coating on aluminum and copper sheets (the cathode and anode) inside a lithium ion battery.

This special machine, about the size of two big filing cabinets, has the same stainless steel look and smooth precision workings as the Terminator's innards. JCI says it is one of the most advanced machines of its type in the world, and it is kept in secure room behind glass. Just looking at it, you know it costs millions. The fact that the machine is at a school and not at its battery lab is telling.

Imagine that you are an engineering student obsessed with energy storage and that you are motivated to do a better job than your parents of taking care of the environment. Having access to such machines would leave a positive impression of JCI and might influence your career decision.

At least that's the hope.

"We need to develop a talent pipeline with the skills required to work with increasingly complex vehicle technology," said Mary Ann Wright, JCI's vice president of engineering and product development, power solutions.

It's too early to say if JCI's efforts to convince young electrical engineers to come to work there instead of going to BMW or Honda will be successful. But JCI is already looking beyond college students.

The company recently donated a plug-in hybrid and an electric vehicle to a high school's auto repair program to get high school kids thinking about a career working on tomorrow's vehicles.

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