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Auto industry battling Silicon Valley for best college engineering talent

The auto industry is back on campus and hiring a different breed of engineer — those who can help invent the next generation of complex software that pushes the envelope on m.p.g., clean emissions and crash avoidance technologies.

The Detroit Three, Asian and European automakers and suppliers find themselves in a new recruitment arena battling Amazon, Apple, Facebook, SpaceX and others for the top software engineering talent.

For the auto industry, recruiting can be challenging because many students are drawn to an entrepreneurial environment in Silicon Valley. Others are skeptical of the auto industry’s boom-and-bust cycles. They’ve been scarred because parents, friends or neighbors lost jobs in the 2008-09 crisis, career advisers said.

Detroit won with Jeffrey Waldner, a University of Victoria in British Columbia engineering student. He became excited about hybrid technology after participating in a national competition called EcoCAR, which General Motors watches for young talent.

He learned that auto engineering was a digital game and took a job as a hybrid control algorithms engineer at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds.

Before EcoCar, Waldner, like his friends, was probably headed toward a job with a major tech giant, he said. His university didn’t offer automotive engineering courses, and his peers never talked about old line manufacturing as an option.

“I realized how cool the work they’re doing was,” he said. “I took for granted the type of technology (needed to build a car) and what it took to get a car running, especially a hybrid.”

The fight for top young talent shows how a specific segment of college students are getting overwhelmed with attention from prospective employers, despite a generally sluggish economy that has left millions of their classmates behind.

Career advisers at Michigan universities report some employers boosting salaries for entry-level engineers, expanding internship programs and offering jobs to some students earlier in their senior years.

“They’re all coming after this same group of students,” said Jim Turnquist, director of Michigan Technological University’s career services office. “They’re putting on their shows to get the attention of the students.”

In some cases, the competition sparks a bidding war for the top 10% of students whose technical skills are transferable to many different industries, said Garth Motschenbacher, Michigan State University’s director of employer relations.

It’s not uncommon for some students to have a choice between the Detroit Three and a Silicon Valley giant like Facebook, he said.

Already paying off

The auto companies’ efforts are already paying dividends.

At MSU, about 11% of 2011-12 grads went to the auto industry, up from 5% a few years ago. At Michigan Tech, about 8% took jobs with auto companies, up from 4%-5% during the industry’s crisis in 2008 and 2009.

To be sure, Michigan universities have long been a key source of talent for the auto industry. Nearly 13,000 graduates of the University of Michigan, MSU and Wayne State University already work for the Detroit Three, according to an Anderson Economic Group report.

The University Research Corridor, an alliance of the state’s three research universities, produces more than 3,600 graduates annually “who are ready for technical careers in the auto industry,” the report concluded. Community colleges also are delivering talent for the industry.

URC executive director Jeff Mason said the auto industry has identified Michigan’s top universities as “fertile ground” for recruiting.

“With the resurgence of the industry and more emphasis on tech within the automobile — whether it’s infotainment or crash avoidance and what’s getting loaded in the vehicles — young people are looking at this as a viable opportunity and a viable industry,” Mason said.

Still, pitching the auto industry to students can be hard. Several students said they want to know that their work is going to make a difference. They recoil at the sight of a top-down culture and hate bureaucracy.

“Students are naïve enough to think they should be speaking to people at the top,” Motschenbacher said.

Auto companies have responded by tweaking their co-op and internship programs.

“Our technology leaders have really focused on giving meaningful engineering challenges for the students, and we encourage mentoring with management exposure,” said Al Deane, chief technology officer of supplier TI Automotive.

GM Vice President for Global Engineering John Calabrese said there’s a compelling reason why top software students and professionals should choose the auto industry.

“Quite candidly, it’s more exciting because you get to invent the future versus designing two lines of code,” he said. “You can be a computer science engineer and work in the auto industry, as well as work for Google or for Apple.”

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