Meeting the need for engineering talent

  • 16-Jun-2014 10:34 EDT
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Ford is working with university students to study the communications between space robots to improve the reliability of vehicle communications and aid in the advancement of emergency communication methods.

Perhaps no one knows the realities of the U.S. engineering job market more than Laura Kurtz, Manager, U.S. Recruiting at Ford Motor Co. The shortage of engineers and the increased competition among corporations for top engineering talent has made the filling of both entry-level and experienced positions at the “Blue Oval” a year-round effort. Automotive Engineering Assistant Editor Matthew Monaghan recently spoke with Kurtz to gain insight into the hiring process at Ford and the types of skills that can help a candidate stand out from the pack.

What’s the state of the current need for engineers at Ford?

About 85% of our hiring needs are in the STEM curriculums (science, technology, engineering, and math). We are looking for many engineers, not just in product development but in other areas of Ford Motor Co., including manufacturing; sustainability, environment, and safety engineering; and purchasing supplier technical assistance, as well as computer science and information technology.

How do you feel universities are preparing young engineers for the workplace?

At the schools Ford recruits at, we are confident that their engineering students have the skills that we’re looking for. We look for students in traditional fields such as mechanical and electrical engineering, and we are specifically looking for students in the area of mechatronics, which is electrical and mechanical systems and how they work together. But Ford also looks for students who have business skills as well, such as project management and financial analysis.

What are your main resources for finding young talent?

We use traditional methods and leverage technology such as social media. Our Ford managers have established relationships with key universities, and we find that students really enjoy the face-to-face contact, not only with the engineering managers but also with students who have just been hired into Ford for more on a peer-to-peer level. Students want to know what will they’ll be doing, and that entry-level engineer can really shed light on the experiences they’ve had since hiring into Ford. We are definitely also using social media. It’s all about communicating to students why come to Ford, what are some of the benefits, and what it’s like to work at Ford on a regular basis.

How much importance do you place on mentorship of young engineers?

We use mentoring at all levels of the organization, but certainly it’s beneficial for a new employee to have a safe person to talk to and help them learn the corporate culture. A mentor is someone to answer those questions that new employees don’t feel comfortable necessarily talking to their boss about and getting some good guidance right from the start so that that student/engineer can really accelerate their learning curve.

In terms of the engineering background of new hires, what is the mix like?

We certainly have a lot of need for mechanical engineers. With electrical, we use a lot of controls engineers in our manufacturing facilities for robotics, assembly, and conveyor systems in the plants. We also are looking for people who have dual degrees, computer science and electrical, because so many of our vehicles have the My Ford and MyLincoln Touch technology with SYNC. We need experts who can help us design those systems because that’s what the consumer wants.

How have you seen the hiring needs of the industry change in your time as Recruiting Manager?

I’ve been in my role for four years, and it’s been an exciting four years. As the auto industry has rebounded, our hiring needs have increased year over year. With that, the economy is picking up, so the talent market is getting very competitive, so you can’t just rely on business-as-usual practices. We have to go out and we have to seek out passive candidates. You can’t just wait for somebody to come to you; you’ve got to go out and find them in the marketplace.

How do you reach out to experienced engineers and what are the types of skills you’re looking for?

We use a myriad of means to seek out experienced engineers, including traditional methods such as job postings. We also leverage technology and tools like Indeed and LinkedIn to find people with the interests that we’re seeking. We also find that one of our best sources of talent is employee referrals. In terms of skills, we’re really focusing on robotics and controls engineering. We also look for experienced engineers with regard to vehicle electrification, hybrid technology, and electronics. We’re also looking for foundational skills, experienced engineers who can manage a project and who can  operate like mini-CEOs of their commodities.

How do you recommend that young people try to get some of that management experience?

The two things that really impress Ford recruiters are students that have a passion for the industry, so students who have been in programs in college such as Formula SAE or vehicle challenges because they’re already engaged in our industry. We also look for students who have demonstrated leadership in their college curriculum. Students who have been project leaders; students who have taken on a leadership role in a professional organization. Those are skills that are very transferrable, and that sets a student apart from other students.

How do you try to make the transition from college to professional as smoothly as possible at Ford?

Students today are much more sophisticated and tech savvy; they’ve been raised on computers and the Internet. They really expect a company to offer technology to make their jobs more efficient. Ford has a program called Digital Worker that teaches employees how to leverage technology to be more effective at work. This really helps new employees learn technology that’s Ford-specific that will help them be successful at Ford.

Are there efforts to sway engineering students to consider Ford who may not initially be considering the automotive industry?

We like to tell the Ford story, and part of that story is the work that Ford is doing around technology and integrating technology in the vehicles. We really are a high-tech company with the equipment that we’re putting into vehicles. That’s why it’s really important that we’re competitive because we’re competing for the same computer engineering talent as some of the big computer and Internet companies. We want students to know that they can work on the same big, sexy projects as Silicon Valley here in Dearborn.

What are considered the busy times for recruitment?

The September-October time frame when we’re out on campus and talking to students is a really concentrated effort. Students who are interested in opportunities both full time and internships need to apply in September because that’s when we’re already making hiring decisions. The second time that’s busy is our intern season, where we bring in students in large numbers and we get them orientated and they start their 12-week summer program at Ford. This year we’re hiring about 500 summer interns.

What has the feedback been like in terms of what students are looking for in their first jobs?

They’re not looking to just be a clerical support person, they want big, meaty assignments, things that can really test their knowledge and they can learn about their area of interest. One of the key things we do to ensure we have a successful internship is each student before they start has a documented work plan, which outlines the projects that they’ll be working on as well as the benefits to the students, and I think that has really helped us be successful in our intern program.

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