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May 18, 2011
Autoworkers who can build and develop green vehicles are in demand. But these aren't your grandfather's automotive job openings.

The auto industry is hiring again.

Unfortunately, for the scores of recently displaced autoworkers, that's not necessarily cause to uncork the champagne bottles.

As the auto industry ramps up production of electric vehicles and shifts toward advanced-technology powertrains and lightweight materials, a new type of job description is emerging -- and that presents a challenge for the automakers and autoworkers.

"As the auto industry changes to green," asked Bob Storc, senior manager of advanced development for Magna E-Car Systems, "will different skills be required? The simple, straightforward answer is yes, without question."

Storc was one of several hundred auto executives, engineers, educators and workforce development officials who attended the Center for Automotive Research's (CAR) "Driving Change: Greening the Automotive Workforce" conference earlier this month in Dearborn, Mich.

Ford's Gioia: EVs "are an enormous growth area, and there is a shortage of people with the right skill set."
The conference -- and a coinciding report put together by CAR and several labor agencies and universities from Michigan, Ohio and Indiana -- attempted to identify the workforce needs and opportunities being created by the auto industry's shift toward green vehicles, particularly in the three states in the heartland of automotive manufacturing.

Nancy Gioia, Ford Motor Co.'s director of global electrification, may have summed up the context of the conference best.

Electric vehicles are "an enormous growth area," Gioia said, "and there is a shortage of people with the right skill set."

Gioia noted that Ford expects electric vehicles -- plug-in, battery-electric and hybrid -- to comprise 10% to 25% of its total sales volume by 2020.

She acknowledged that growth of electric-vehicle sales "has been a slow and steady journey," but "at the end of the day, we see it coming."

"It's a big deal," she asserted.

However, this is not just about the rise of electric vehicles.

It's about the proliferation of in-vehicle electronics and software -- a trend that shows no signs of slowing. Vehicles are becoming more connected, vehicle interiors are looking more and more like multimedia entertainment centers, and Ford says it's just a matter of time before vehicles can talk with each other wirelessly to avoid crashes and reduce traffic tie-ups.

It's also about the need to make vehicles lighter to improve fuel economy. The CAR report notes that advanced grades of steel have helped improve vehicle weight in recent years, but "aluminum, magnesium and composites can be cost-competitive and technologically superior in other instances."

"Since the early days, the industry has always been very steel-centric," said Brett Smith, co-director of CAR's manufacturing, engineering and technology group. "It will remain so for the future, but it is changing."

And so are the skills needed for the automotive workforce of the future.

'Armies of Electrochemistry People'

For example, battery development requires "experts in electrochemistry, and people who understand the storage and release of large amounts of energy," Storc said.

"This isn't a skill set that's common in the industry today," Storc asserted. "It just isn't there. We have armies of fuel people, but not armies of electrochemistry people."

GM's Champagne: "We want those people who ... really go the extra mile."That's just the tip of the iceberg.

Randall Champagne, hybrid battery system engineer for General Motors, rattled off a list of job disciplines that are in demand, including electronic hardware, software and systems; aerodynamics and energy efficiency; and "mechatronics" -- a field that encompasses areas such as mechanical engineering, electronic engineering and computer engineering.

The auto industry also needs engineers who understand the electric grid and how to connect it with vehicles, Champagne noted, as well as materials scientists who can develop and create lightweight and environmentally friendly materials.

And arming yourself with cutting-edge skills isn't enough.

'Go the Extra Mile'

The CAR report, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, concluded that the autoworkers of today "need systems thinking."

"That means that individuals must possess the soft skills that enable cross-cultural communication, collaboration and teamwork," the report's executive summary states. "Production and skilled-trades workers must adapt to an increasingly fast cadence of new product, process and technology introductions."

CAR's Smith, summarizing the report's findings as well as some of the comments from auto industry executives at the conference, put it this way: "No longer can you just be a one-dimensional employee."

On top of all that, job seekers need to show that they're charged up about electric vehicles and other advanced technologies, Champagne said.

"We want those people who not only show the certificate, but really go the extra mile," Champagne asserted.

Champagne recommended participating in programs and organizations such as EcoCAR (a collegiate advanced-vehicle-technology competition), the FIRST Robotics Competition and the Center for Automotive Research.

"If you want a job in this industry, that's what puts you that step up from everybody else."

This is the first in a series of web-exclusive articles discussing the auto industry's shift to alternative-fuel and advanced-technology vehicles, and the workforce needs and opportunities being created by that shift.

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