Engineering a Comeback

As the recovery of the automotive industry transforms a glut of engineering talent into a shortage of skilled workers, corporate and civic leaders are scouting the world - and their own backyard - for prospects.


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The pint-sized car tucked into the corner of Cobo Center during the 2012 North American International Auto Show was easy to miss. Yet the eMo concept vehicle, developed by Tata Technologies, was one of the annual event’s more important debuts.

While the $20,000 eMo likely will never make it to a local showroom, it’s designed to demonstrate that electric vehicles can compete on price with traditional, gas-powered automobiles. But more significant to the region and state is that while Tata Technologies is the R&D arm of India’s giant Tata Motors, much of the development work on the eMo, which will be sold in Asian markets, was performed in Michigan.

Tata is just one of dozens of foreign-based manufacturers, suppliers, and research firms that have been setting up shop or expanding their engineering base in metro Detroit over the last two years. The list is a virtual automotive who’s-who, ranging from Japanese giant Toyota, which opened a huge test track and research center near Ann Arbor, to French software firm Dassault, located in Auburn Hills, whose CATIA is the computer-aided design technology of choice for much of the automotive industry.

In the process, the companies have taken what was a glut of engineers and turned it into a severe shortage. Today, it’s not unusual for companies to be offering rock-star wages and benefits to the right people. On a related front, there are plenty of reports of companies raiding rival firms for engineering talent.

How times have changed, says Della Cassia, media communications manager at the Engineering Society of Detroit in Southfield. She recalls a gloomy afternoon a few years back when “Chrysler let go of 3,000 (engineers and support staff in one move), and our phones wouldn’t stop ringing with people looking for jobs. Many had families and were desperate.”

Shifting Gears: Laid-off execs trade-in corner offices for startup basements

Various industry and trade organizations estimate more than 10,000 (of Michigan’s 225,000) engineers were let go by the Big Three automakers during the second half of the last decade. “It was a very dark time,” says David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research and who co-runs the AutoHarvest Foundation.

Now, the days of doubt and uncertainty seem a distant memory. Cassia points to an ESD job fair in the spring of 2011. At the time, the trade group had 40 companies participating, and 1,038 unemployed engineers lined up for interviews, resumes in hand, for few openings. In contrast, last autumn, when the next fair was held, 59 firms signed on, with 2,000 job openings to fill, but only 789 potential employees greeted them.

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