ZF invests in future engineers with expanded FIRST presence

ZF -- which has hundreds of openings for engineers -- is sponsoring at least 21 teams around the country and is donating $330,000 to help FIRST teams buy the mechanical parts to build robots.

The tens of billions of dollars being spent to develop self-driving vehicles has exacerbated a frustrating problem in the auto industry: the shortage of engineers. Startups and established companies need engineers for their automated driving projects. But there aren't enough to fill all the openings.

Some companies, such as ZF Group, the giant German supplier best known for transmissions, are taking a longer view and are ramping up involvement in FIRST, the organization founded nearly 30 years ago by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen.

FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- offers high school students an avenue to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM skills. Students build robots that are required to perform tasks, such as picking up inflated balls and putting them in a basket and climbing walls. Teams compete with those from other schools. Winners compete at the state level and then the national level and finally against teams from around the world.

Think of FIRST as a sporting event every bit as much fun as Friday night high school football games. At a FIRST competition, usually held in a gymnasium, loud music, team uniforms, cheering sections and plenty of school pride dominate. The robots the student teams build require creative engineering, programming, craftsmanship and high-quality work -- some of the same attributes automakers and suppliers look for in potential engineers.

ZF -- which has hundreds of openings for engineers -- is sponsoring at least 21 teams around the country has donated $330,000 to help FIRST teams buy the mechanical parts to build robots. In July, a ZF-sponsored team of 11 students from Ypsilanti, Mich., traveled to Shanghai to mentor Chinese FIRST students. FIRST is just getting established in China.

Chris Lesser, a ZF software program manager who mentors the Ypsilanti team, accompanied the team to China. An interpreter helped American and Chinese students work together, and the teams built a competitive robot, Lesser told me.

"The Chinese students did speak a little bit of English. Still, there was a language barrier, but it was interesting to see the kids work around that. Everything from drawing things out to using translate apps on their phones, that sort of thing. They worked around it. That was one of the big things I took away from it, how they were able to kind of work as a big international team."

In global companies such as ZF, General Motors and Ford, working on an engineering team is often a multinational affair. One of my fondest memories of my time at Ford is that engineering meetings were often a virtual United Nations of talent, with Germans working alongside Americans, Brits, Asians, etc. -- everyone works together to solve problems.

ZF officials hope that exposing FIRST students to the company's mentors and culture will influence career decisions for students who stick with engineering.

"We have to build our talent pipeline," says ZF spokeswoman Ashley Van Horn. "We have over 700 openings, not including production manufacturing jobs. We need to expand our brand among STEM students, parents and mentors."

During the FIRST 2018 Championship this spring in Detroit, I spoke with several dozen students about career paths. Here's what the auto industry is up against: These kids know that engineers are in high demand. They also know if they earn an engineering degree, especially an electrical engineering degree or one that has an emphasis on programming, they'll have dozens of career choices from which to choose.

Students I spoke with frequently mentioned careers in medical robotics and gaming as having high appeal. But they did not rule out working on self-driving vehicles. Most students feel autonomous cars represent cutting-edge engineering where they already have at least some idea of the challenges.

ZF expects some of the initial FIRST students from teams it has sponsored since 2010 to enter the work force in a few years and that the company will have a reasonable chance to hire them. Says Lesser: "The whole pipeline from high school to industry definitely exists."

Thanks to my friend Birgit Sorgenfrei, an engineer at Ford, I've been a FIRST judge since 2016. I had a chance to speak briefly with Kamen this year when I worked on the Ford team of judges at the Michigan FIRST finals.

Kamen said "there are so many career opportunities for people who understand how to create the technology and how to maintain it and use it. Careers of the future exist at the intersection of people's skills with respect to technologies and what those new technologies will be."

My advice to every automaker and supplier is to go all-in with FIRST, supporting local teams with mentors, money and internships that give students real responsibility. It's a long-term investment, but one that has a huge potential payoff. Just ask ZF.

"Our presence at the Detroit event really opened a lot of executives' eyes," said Van Horn. "They didn't get it until they came and saw, and they were just blown away. We hope to grow it. That's our plan."

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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