An article appeared in the May 18 edition of the Detroit Free Press posing the question:  “Are engineers too few or just harder to find?” 

I have been a recruiter in the automotive industry for the past 18 years and am constantly looking for a variety of engineers who possess a specific set of skills. As a result, it is a question I have considered often and I believe I know the answer: Yes.

How can this be? The article goes on to reference a recent study by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute that says there actually is a glut.

The institute says there are more students graduating with technology-related degrees than ever before: engineering, manufacturing, technology and science.

Assuming this is true, where are they? They certainly aren’t in the Detroit area, which begs the question, why not? I believe the answer is twofold: technological advancements in the vehicle and the recent recession.

In the past, mechanical engineers were the most sought after, and they still are in demand.  However, there has been a major shift in current and future vehicles toward more electronic and IT-related content. This requires people with information-technology, computer engineering and electrical engineering degrees.

The Free Press article quotes Ben Winter, vice president-vehicle engineering at Chrysler, who says there are now 20 million lines of embedded software code in today’s cars. This represents 10 times more than just 13 years ago. 

This trend will continue unabated with the different aspects of the autonomous vehicle becoming commonplace. If the Economic Policy Institute study is taken at face value, the problem isn’t a lack of engineers.

Instead, it is the automotive industry’s inability to attract them.

In May 2012, I met with the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology career placement center. We both agreed the engineering degrees most in demand were IT, computer and electrical.

We also agreed most students who graduate from MIT are not considering the automotive industry as a career destination. I am exaggerating here, but they all want to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

I know it sounds harsh, but if they ended up working in the automotive industry, they would consider it a failure. 

I think the industry has a severe perception problem. There are a number of innovative ideas and advanced technologies being integrated into next-generation vehicles, which will create a paradigm shift in the way people will get from point “A” to point “B”. 

These vehicles will reduce our dependence on hydrocarbons and will be exponentially safer.  Henry Ford and the Model T changed the world, and we are on the precipice of the next big shift.

This is exciting stuff, but at present it is our own little secret.

If the industry wants to remain relevant, it needs to attract the best and the brightest in the IT, computer and electrical engineering world, and right now those people are looking past us. We have to do something to get their attention. 

Beyond increasing IT and computer-related content in the vehicle, there is a growing need for experienced mechanical and electrical automotive engineers.

Under normal circumstances, an orderly turnover of talent occurs, with experienced people retiring and newly minted BSME and BSEE grads replacing them. 

However, the economic downturn changed this dynamic. So many people left the industry for various reasons, there now is a critical shortage of experienced talent. Sadly, these people are not coming back, and the only way to gain experience is over time.

There are too few engineers in the auto industry, which makes finding qualified people difficult. The combination of experienced talent leaving the industry coupled with a diminishing number of engineers entering the business is a problem. Only time can correct lack of experience.

We have to do a much better job of letting the engineering community know the auto industry is the place where innovation happens daily. 

Steve Wassman is director of engineering at Angott Search Group, a full-service executive search firm based in Rochester, MI.