Sun, May 14, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Sick of losing talent war, Detroit tries Silicon Valley makeover

By Keith Naughton, David Welch And Jamie Butters  /  Bloomberg

The General Motors Co headquarters is pictured in Detroit, Michigan, on Sept. 16, 2015.

Photo: AFP

Detroit needs more people like Victoria Schein. Less than a year out of Smith College, the 23-year-old software engineer has filed for 14 patents and received nine as part of Ford Motor Co’s driverless-vehicle research team.

A self-described “California girl” with a thing for cars, Schein, a former Ford summer intern in the company’s Silicon Valley research center, passed up a couple of enviable local offers to move to Dearborn, Michigan, and work for the automaker full-time.

“It’s not that I don’t want to be in Palo Alto, I love California,” she says. “But when I came out here, it opened my eyes to different possibilities.”

Schein is the exception. As US automakers race companies such as Apple Inc, Uber Technologies Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Waymo to automate driving, most of the top talent continues to cluster out west, where there is better pay and weather, among other things.

Detroit’s Big Three and other car companies have about 5,000 US job openings in software and electronics product development, representing about a third of their unfilled positions, consultant AlixPartners LLP said.

“This is a massive challenge,” said Ben Dollar, a principal at Deloitte Consulting who counsels automakers on recruiting. “The scarcity of talent in this area is so acute, it’s become a CEO issue, not just an HR issue.”

What Detroit has going for it is the ability to get innovative cars on the road relatively quickly. That can be appealing for young auto-techies bent on changing the world. Then there is the cost of living, dirt cheap in Detroit compared with the Valley, along with modern urban lofts sprouting among the gritty downtown streets.

Still, Detroit remains a tough sell, given the Valley’s US$1 million signing bonuses and fat equity stakes in promising start-ups.

The car companies’ answer tends to fall in the work-life balance category, with features that have become almost cliches such as treadmill desks and “hoteling” stations for staffers passing through.

“This workforce does not want to be confined to a cubical or to a desk or even to an office,” Ford’s director of recruiting Julie Lodge-Jarrett said of the millennials the company is seeking. “One of them said to me: ‘The 40-hour workweek is dead to us.’”

To lure more young talent straight out of school, Detroit is giving itself a full-on Silicon Valley makeover.

General Motors Co (GM) is spending US$1 billion renovating its 60-year-old Tech Center in a northern suburb. Ford is overhauling its 1950s-era Dearborn campus to add green space, walking trails and eco-friendly designs, such as a cylindrical glass tower dubbed the “Sustainability Showcase.”

The first phase of Ford’s facelift involved taking over an entire wing of an aging shopping mall in its hometown. Inside a former Lord & Taylor department store, digital engineers work in collaborative spaces. Amenities include rows of plug-in, stand-up hoteling stations. If all that is not good enough, there is the work-in-your pajamas option.

“If I had to work 10 hours a day or eight hours straight, I wouldn’t be able to efficiently get my work done,” said Schein, who feared burnout at the pace of a frenetic start-up.

That way of thinking, though, is still hard to grasp for many steeped in the old ways of Detroit, said Michael Held, director of the automotive practice at AlixPartners.

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