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Detroit vs. the West Coast: Fetching Top Talent

Sept. 1, 2015
Automakers find they're having to work harder to attract the cream of the crop.

Automotive researcher Kristin Dziczek has heard the refrain over and over: Detroit automakers are competing with Silicon Valley for top tech talent, and coming up short.

"We do everything. We put out the big shrimp, and they don't come to our events," a perplexed recruiter once told Dziczek, the director of the Industry and Labor Group for the Center for Automotive Research.

Detroit automakers are still struggling to shake the Rust Belt imagery of a generation or two ago, says Kevin Kerrigan of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Long memories of mass layoffs and hazardous conditions won't bring people running to your doorstep. According to a 2014 study by MICHAuto, an automotive industry accelerator affiliated with the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, only 41% of "influencers" -- parents, counselors, teachers -- are likely to advise a young person to consider a career in the automotive industry.

That lack of enthusiasm, combined with the rebound in vehicle sales since 2010, has the industry swimming in unfilled skilled and professional jobs. For her research, Dziczek and her team interviewed executives at eight suppliers, four emerging technology companies and five automakers (Toyota NA, FCA, Ford, GM and Volkswagen) and analyzed labor data and job postings. They found that at some automotive companies in Michigan, only 40% of positions that were posted were filled in 12 months. Eighty days was the average overall for a job posting to stay open, she says. "That's about a month too long."

To attract more high-tech talent to Michigan's automotive industry, in August, MEDC launched a marketing initiative called "We Run on Brain Power." Its centerpiece is a website that features sleek cars and attractive people talking about how they found their calling in Detroit, with jobs like "virtual reality specialist" and "autonomous vehicle researcher."

Kerrigan says the marketing campaign is aimed at students with high-tech backgrounds, hailing from Michigan and beyond. But will videos alone convince top college students to abandon their dreams of working for Google?

Phil Callihan, director of strategic projects at the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, which is responsible for Michigan Robotics Day, said at a CAR Industry Briefing in June that carmakers have plenty of opportunities to show off their technology to students -- to let them see and touch it, not just watch a video about it -- but they tend to squander those opportunities.

"Because manufacturing is so competitive, we don't talk about the amazing things we've done," Callihan told the group. "I think we can do a better job of that. We've had three automakers commit [to Robotics Day] over the years and then pull their cars out because they don't want to show something."

"You're trying to engage the next generation. There's nothing you're going to show that's going to tip your hand to a competitor."

At the CAR seminar, Dziczek suggested that auto industry companies who might not have the budget for a video campaign start by realigning expectations and improving job descriptions in postings.

"Maybe the posting says you need a bachelor's degree in engineering, but really it could be done by someone with an associate's degree or a certificate," she told the group. "Most job postings have about 16 core things you need to know. Maybe you only need five of those that you're really going to use day to day."

She also suggested developing co-op programs and internships not just for college juniors and seniors -- that's where everyone looks -- but for underclassmen, too, and high school juniors and seniors. Apprenticeship programs that offer formal credentials or a certificate and have students working in different parts of the business over time are especially fruitful, she says.

That said, even bringing out the big shrimp won't attract a "unicorn," says Dziczek, referring to an imaginary person who fits an unrealistic job description. Many job postings the CAR team analyzed asked for five to eight years of experience. "Overwhelmingly, this has long been the category people like," Dziczek says. "These are people who know something, but they're still moldable." But five to eight years ago was 2007 to 2010 -- not exactly banner years for hiring in the auto industry.

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