You might think an industry that dumped thousands of engineers during the recession would have no problem hiring engineers.
As automakers and suppliers gear up to build more hybrids and electric vehicles, they're struggling with a talent shortage.
The key problem: Traditional mechanical engineering skills generally don't apply to electric-drive powertrains. Specific experience is needed -- and it's hard to find.
"We're being a lot more aggressive to recruit these people because it is very competitive," says Jerry Klarr, director of North American hybrid programs for AVL Powertrain Engineering Inc. in suburban Detroit. "There is definitely a shortage out there of people with the right experience."
That mismatch poses a problem for companies like General Motors, which wants to hire 1,000 engineers and researchers for electric-drive systems, and many suppliers eager to get in on the work.
Tata Technologies, for instance, needs to hire about 200 U.S. engineers to work on electric vehicles and other alternative-energy drivetrains. And it needs them soon, says spokesman Daniel Saad: "We have people working on projects, and they're desperately looking for people to fill positions and keep them going."
Bernard Swiecki, senior project manager at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., is studying the issue. He says "jack-of-all trades engineers" are readily available, but that's not where the action is.
"It's when we get into the specific hot fields that there are shortages, people jumping from company to company," Swiecki says. "It's becoming more difficult to get them and more difficult to retain them."
The shortage is likely to become more acute when the U.S. Department of Energy releases an additional $17 billion in loans for fuel-efficient vehicles, Swiecki adds.
Tesla Motors' job board is consistently packed with dozens of openings for electrical and electromechanical engineers. Automotive experience isn't necessarily a prerequisite, given how new the EV field is, said Arnnon Geshuri, Tesla vice president of human resources.
"Whether it's working for Apple on the iPhone or people building robotic arms, we are finding individuals who have tackled challenging problems," Geshuri says. "There is an amazing pool of talent we can pull from."
To get an early line on incoming talent, Tesla has formed partnerships with universities. Being in Silicon Valley also helps lure talent from nearby technology companies and attracts engineers looking to escape colder climes, he says.
Finding engineers skilled in both power electronics and automotive applications is rare, says Gary Cameron, director of power electronics engineering at Delphi Automotive.
Cameron says Delphi and other automotive companies look to poach talent from related industries, such as aerospace. But he says persuading engineers to switch to the auto industry can be tough, given the heavy layoffs of recent years.
And former auto engineers who have uprooted families to take jobs after those layoffs are likely to be skittish about returning to the industry. "The automotive industry has a black eye because of what we've gone through," Cameron says. "To convince talent to put their families' lives and destiny into the automotive industry, we've got to rebuild credibility."
Oliver Hazimeh, head of the e-mobility practice at consultant PRTM, says Detroit-area automakers and suppliers face a challenge in persuading engineers to relocate. They may have to consider satellite engineering centers in places like Silicon Valley, he says: "The solution may be to go where the resources are."
Mike Colias and Mark Rechtin contributed to this report