DETROIT – Less than three years after ending a brutally messy bankruptcy case, Delphi plans to hire hundreds of engineers in the U.S. and overseas, Chief Technology Officer Jeffrey Owens tells WardsAuto.

Suppliers such as Delphi aggressively reorganized by closing facilities and eliminating jobs in recent years as the recession took its toll on vehicle sales.

But the industry is rebounding and forcing auto makers and suppliers to boost production, add personnel and consider expanding plants and engineering centers.

Delphi currently has 4,400 engineers in the U.S., including 1,500 at an electronics engineering center in Kokomo, IN, that is expanding, Owens says. Growth in the engineering ranks will not be restricted to the U.S., which now is a small piece in the company’s global puzzle.

“It will be several hundred (engineers) in the U.S. and a lot in Europe and a lot in China,” Owens says during an interview, adding he hopes the positions can be filled as quickly as possible. “I would fill them tomorrow if we could get the right skill-set match,” he says.

The growth strategy marks an about-face for Delphi, which once was the world’s largest supplier but found its ranks decimated by bankruptcy-forced restructuring that began in October 2005.

When Delphi spun off from former parent General Motors, the supplier employed 15,000 engineers worldwide, most of them in the U.S. The company closed 2011 with 17,000 engineers, scientists and technicians worldwide.

Owens says Delphi will proceed cautiously when adding more engineers.

“We pay attention to how the markets are doing. We’re all a little worried about Europe,” he says, adding that staffing up also entails re-instating summer internships and co-op programs with universities.

“These are the things most of the auto industry quit doing during the downturn. It’s invigorating for the whole organization,” he says of the ability to bolster staff levels.

The need is greatest for mechanical and electronics engineers, especially those capable of working on electric vehicles and hybrids, Owens says.

Recruiting is a challenge because sharp minds coming out of college are less-inclined to favor automotive careers, having witnessed a wave of bankruptcies and staff cuts in the industry.

“When you’ve been through a downturn like we went through, it’s hard for people to get excited and look at automotive as an opportunity-rich field with leading-edge technology,” he says. “But if you like automobiles Delphi is a great high-tech outlet for that career path.”

Despite the challenges, Owens sees some of these jobs already being filled. “We’ve not had vacancies go unfilled for long.”

The market for electric vehicles has been slow to take off, but Owens is convinced sales will grow and that Delphi will need engineers as electric-powertrain technologies evolve. The company is invested heavily in charging devices and high-voltage cables necessary for EVs.

“We’re very committed to covering the bet (on EVs), and that’s with uncertain knowledge about whether the market will show up,” he says of Delphi’s investments in the sector. “So it has been disappointing and very expensive, but we still think that’s an area we need to continue to cover.”

Delphi’s product focus for EVs will continue to be inversion/conversion devices, charging, power distribution, high-voltage interconnects and electric compressors for climate control, Owens says. “We will never do motors or batteries, but we’ll do everything in between.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com