Technology race drives automotive hiring

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

It takes Victoria Schein, a 23-year-old research engineer, about six minutes to bike to work the two miles from her Dearborn apartment to Ford’s Research and Innovation Center.

Schein, who studied engineering and studio art at Smith College in Massachusetts, doesn’t need a car to get where she needs to go. She’s never had a driver’s license. But she doesn’t need one for her job, which focuses on design — not driving.

“I’m quite different,” she said, laughing. “I’m one of the only people (at Ford) without a license. It definitely shocks people when they find out.”

As Ford and other major auto companies look for fresh ideas as they expand into the technology and mobility fields in their pursuit of driverless cars, they’ve had to look for talent in new places.

Research engineers act as a company’s idea factories: They spend their days researching and inventing new products, processes and technology.

Schein already has filed 15 patent applications and more than 30 invention disclosures during her short time with Ford. She started full-time in June after wrapping up her final semester of college. Some of the patents were filed while she was an intern at Ford’s Palo Alto, California, research outpost in 2015.

The industry is craving unique technology minds, according Jason Dawson, president of Metro Detroit-based recruitment company Talascend, and Jeremiah Kaltz, Talascend’s director of recruiting. People like Schein can be a good fit as the auto companies begin looking for engineers who might not have strong automotive backgrounds.

“We’ve seen a desire for the younger workforce,” Dawson said. “They want to start new, innovative thinking.”

Engineers with strong backgrounds in technology mark a change from the electrical and mechanical specialists who have dominated the automotive industry.

“The traditional electrical or mechanical engineer has taken a much more technical route,” said Kaltz. Now, he says, “There’s more innovation and more software … . The engineer has a new profile now, and it’s an even more demanding concept.”

Talascend works closely with General Motors, where the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt represents the new thinking in the company. Within the last few years, Kaltz has seen recruiting of engineers change accordingly.

Benefits of biking

Schein’s patent applications range from inventions to help people safely access apps on mobile devices while driving or biking, to geo-tagging devices and routing systems. She said her background and lack of a car help her see the company in a way many Ford engineers might not.

“(Biking) has pushed me to come up with solutions to problems I’ve run into, or bring ideas that are really unique or something someone who was driving wouldn’t necessarily think of,” she said. “How could I help the driver from my perspective (as a cyclist or pedestrian)?”

Schein said that early in life she wanted to create the car of the future.

“I want to help people get where they need to go,” she said. “It was my dream to be a car designer … . I never had a dream to drive the car. My dream was more to design an amazing, aesthetically pleasing smart car.”

The timing is perfect, she said. Ford wants a fully self-driving car on the road by 2021, and that will require innovation in uncharted territory. Schein said it helps that her engineering studies didn’t focus on mechanical or electrical engineering.

Julie Lodge-Jarrett, the chief learning officer and global director of learning for Ford’s development and recruiting wing, said the company is looking for balance between fostering new talent like Schein, developing existing talent and tweaking future recruitment efforts to meet technological needs.

Ford has historically sought out engineers to research new technology for the company, she said, but the degrees and backgrounds of those engineering recruits have recently started to shift.

In the last decade, Ford has sought through recruiting a larger percentage of engineers with background or aptitude in high-tech engineering fields, she said. About 10 percent of the engineers Ford brings into the company have high-tech degrees or backgrounds to fill such roles as software engineers, applications developers and digital media specialists.

Ford’s recent emphasis on mobility and autonomy has “increased our need to technical talent,” Lodge-Jarrett said. That has led Ford to look at different areas within universities the company typically recruits from, or find new avenues to locate the best minds. She stressed that the company is still “building” on existing talent as well.

“We’re looking a little more strategically,” she said. “We’re looking at people that don’t fit the traditional profile.”

Changing industry

Ford’s shift to become an automotive and mobility company has led the company to change its environment and its culture to attract new talent.

One example is Ford’s recent investments in its Dearborn campuses and its $60 million injection into downtown Dearborn — both aimed at making Ford’s home city a more attractive place to live and work. The company’s internal 30 Under 30 program selects “early career” employees and involves them in company innovation and in working with area nonprofit groups.

“The decision we’ve made is that we will never be Uber or Google or Apple, and that’s OK,” Lodge-Jarrett said. Ford did recently hire a 34-year-old former Apple executive to work as the company’s chief brand officer.

“We know that our industry is going to change more in the next 10 years than it has in the last decade,” she said. “We don’t want to be seen as that century-old traditional manufacturing company, and our campus has to reflect (that)... We are definitely attracting a broader set of talent today than we were historically.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau