More stories related to SAE DETROIT - The recruitment and development of American engineers must improve if U.S.-based auto makers still want to rely on homegrown talent, General Motors Corp. executives say.

“We're having a very difficult time attracting engineers,” Jim Queen, GM vice president-Global Engineering, says here at the Society of Automotive Engineers Congress and Exposition. “It's almost bordering on a crisis situation.”

Engineering students often see the auto industry as stodgy and low-tech. Furthermore, the Midwest, where the U.S. auto industry is centered, suffers from a negative image problem - it's frequently referred to as the “rust belt” - and endures notoriously cold winters, he says.

One GM executive tells Ward's a recent effort to recruit three student engineers for a short-term road test was excruciating. “When I was that age, I would've jumped at an opportunity like that,” the executive says. “We had trouble filling the program.”

Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman-Global Product Development.

But the challenges go beyond student recruitment. “Our engineers in America, I believe, are at a distinct disadvantage in the way they're trained, vs. their Asian and European counterparts,” says Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman-Global Product Development. “I've seen it time and time again, both in my stays in Europe and in collaborations with Asian partners.”

Bureaucracy and fundamental philosophical differences in education often bog down American engineers, Lutz notes.

“If you get a group of (Asian or European) engineers in a studio and present them with an issue, or a problem, they will immediately gather and discuss it and pull out a pad and start doing engineering sketches,” he says.

“More often than not, they'll come up with a solution right there. In America, in the same situation, the engineers go away and form a committee to address the issue, and later you'll get an answer. And it isn't always the solution you'd hoped for.”

Engineers also are trained differently in the U.S. compared with Asia and Europe. “I had this exact conversation several years ago with the head of one of America's leading engineering schools,” Lutz recalls.

“He said the rest of the world basically trains an engineer to be a draftsman first. They make sure he can execute technical drawings; and then, simultaneously, the engineering skills and the math and the ability to calculate solutions are all built upon that.

“In the U.S., (he told me) we make the separation between engineers, and what we used to call draftsmen and we now call designers,” Lutz continues. “The engineer has ideas about solutions, and he conveys those ideas to the designers who execute them.

“The bottom line is, we are actually training our engineers to be managers while the rest of the world trains them to be 'doers.'”

Lutz says the U.S. is deliberately avoiding the “hands-on” engineer, which is part of the reason why GM has a program called “Designing Engineers.”

“We're trying to train engineers after the fact and have them do their own drafting,” he says. “It's going to take awhile to get all our engineers through the program, but it will be worth it. That is a big challenge to engineering in the new world - the need for the modern engineer to be solution-oriented, more hands-on.

He says it is at least as big a challenge as the quest to best utilize all the modern technology at the auto maker's disposal.

Says Lutz, “Being more hands-on gives the engineer a better perspective. It helps build the intuitive sense of what works and what doesn't. It gives a stronger feel for what is actually going on beneath the sheet metal.”

bcorbett@primediabusiness.com