In search of specialized engineers

Image: GM at Stanford University.jpg

Dan Nicholson, Executive Director of General Motors' Powertrain Embedded Controls, speaks with students after a GM-hosted panel discussion in November 2012 at Stanford University.


The demand for control systems engineers and software engineers is in overdrive. And for engineers with a dual skill set (i.e. mechanical-electrical/electronics), expect the demand to intensify as more hybrid-electric and plug-in electric vehicles enter the development pipeline.

“Universities are addressing this need by changing programs and adding mechanical-electrical curriculum to their programs. But in the meantime executives are saying, ‘I need the talent now’,” Alan Lecz, Director of Employer Strategies at Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) for Southeast Michigan, said in an interview with SAE Magazines. (The non-profit WIN agency works with southeast Michigan’s eight community colleges, seven workforce boards, economic development partners, and other groups to gather labor pool-related data and facilitate talent development in the metro Detroit region.)

Lecz was one of the featured speakers at an SAE organized seminar (“Strategic Human Resource Management and the Evolution of the Technical Automotive Workforce”) on Feb. 12 at the Macomb Community College in Warren, MI.

Many industry experts say the demand for electro-mechanical engineers, skilled technicians, CNC machinists, welders, control systems engineers, and software engineers is greater than the supply. The reasons for the shortage of specialists encompasses many aspects, including a lack of interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers as well as retirements and career changes.

Sean Vander Elzen, the Director of Talent Acquisition and Early Career Development at General Motors, said recruiters and hiring managers should be open-minded about job seekers looking to re-enter the workforce after leaving an automotive-related career years ago.

“The base skills that people learn in mechanical, or electrical, or software engineering programs are important. No question about that. But for people who have been out of a STEM career for five years or so, should we consider hiring them? If they have good collaboration skills, good problem-solving skills, and a good technical background, it should be much easier to get those people back in the game vs. someone who doesn’t have those fundamental underpinnings,” Vander Elzen said in an interview with SAE Magazines.

Recruiting prospective job candidates with highly desirable skill sets usually requires more than a simple job posting. Which is one reason why in the fall of 2012, Vander Elzen along with engineers and other GM staff made a networking/recruiting visit to Stanford University in California.

With Stanford University being on the West Coast and GM being Midwest-based, “we felt that there might be some perception issues,” said Vander Elzen. In partnership with the MTV Scratch group, the networking/recruiting program featured music with a disc jockey, an interactive panel discussion, and other activities to provide information about GM vehicles and to create interest in pursuing job opportunities at GM. “This event was really an experiment for us,” said Vander Elzen, who noted that GM is competing with Apple, Microsoft, and Google for software engineers.

Having a mix of early-career engineers and veteran technical specialists is important to a company’s technical progress. “I think we have to work on all elements of the talent pipeline. For immediate business issues, we usually need to find experienced people. But we also have to work on the early-career aspect to build for the future,” said Vander Elzen, who was also a speaker at the Feb. 12 workforce seminar.

Building a team for a vehicle development program or advanced research project requires specialists in various engineering disciplines.

For example, in-vehicle control systems development work depends on several skill sets. Mechanical engineering is needed to understand the dynamics of the engine and transmission being controlled, but real-time computing and real-time software engineering expertise is also vital, according to Kenneth Butts, Executive Engineer of Powertrain Control-Model Based Development at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, MI.

“We don’t necessarily expect one individual to have all those skills, so we build out our teams to have complementary skill sets,” Butts, one of the workforce seminar speakers, said in an interview with SAE Magazines.

The ever-increasing complexity of embedded control systems is also getting attention from computer science experts who are working on verification techniques that would help confirm the quality of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure functionality.

“One of the things we want when an automation system takes control from the driver (i.e., collision mitigation or collision avoidance) is to know unequivocally that the software is correct and has the right functionality. But right now, state-of-the-art computer science theory doesn’t match our large-scale industrial needs,” Butts told SAE Magazines.

Toyota engineers in advanced vehicle development are working with university researchers to realize improvements in verification theory. “In addition to advancing the theory so that automotive industry problems can be addressed, we also need to learn how to better use the theory in our own in-vehicle control applications,” Butts said, adding that “these challenges present opportunities to partner with universities and provide new learning experiences for future engineers.”

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