DETROIT -- Last year, BorgWarner Inc. skipped the job fair at the SAE convention here. Not this year.
Dennis Phillips, a BorgWarner recruiter, spent two days glad-handing job seekers and scanning resumes at last week's conference of automotive engineers. He wants 40 engineers for the supplier's powertrain division, including a senior design engineer for engine control units and other tough-to-fill slots.
"You know it's tough when you've got six recruiting agencies working on it and you still can't fill it," Phillips said.
As the industry recovers, automakers and parts suppliers are scrambling to rebuild their engineering ranks after shedding workers during the downturn.
They're finding a more-fickle job market, with decent candidates often weighing multiple offers and demanding more.
Two years ago, the average salary for a software engineer with five years' experience, for example, ran around $80,000 to $85,000, said Cheryl Boland, technical division manager at Quanta Staffing Solutions in suburban Detroit.
"Now they're asking $90,000 to $95,000 and getting it," Boland said. "It's not very palatable for companies. But they realize they have to do it."
Boland said her division, which hires engineers mainly for Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers, is trying to fill roughly 250 openings. That's double the number from a year ago.
More companies have been forced to spring for relocation packages to lure back engineers who bolted to sectors such as aerospace or energy amid the auto industry's mass layoffs, Boland said.
Some companies are even sponsoring visas to import engineering talent from overseas.
"A lot of people switched industries and are leery of returning to auto," she said. "They've been burned."
Adding to the heated demand for engineers is the quest for better fuel economy.
Automakers and suppliers are ramping up their engineering efforts in electrification and other powertrain advancements as they race to meet government-mandated standards.
Todd Zakreski, president of Husco Automotive in Waukesha, Wis., said he's racing to fill orders for the company's valves and actuators, which are used in variable valve-timing units, cylinder deactivators and other fuel-saving systems. He needs engineers with experience in hydraulics and magnetics.
"Those are very special skill sets that are hard to come by," said Zakreski, who worked the SAE job fair in hopes of filling 15 openings.
Suppliers say automakers are snapping up many of the good candidates. Chrysler Group, General Motors and Ford Motor Co. combined want to hire a few thousand engineers.
Cassie Andrews, a recruiter for Brose North America Inc. in suburban Detroit, worked the company's SAE booth in hopes of hiring up to 25 engineers. The company makes electric motors for seat systems, windows and doors.
Andrews said the competition for talent has become heated in recent months, from rivals such as Johnson Controls Inc. and Lear Corp. as well as automakers.
"All the OEMs are all pulling people back in," Andrews said. "It's much more challenging than it was a year or two ago."