US automakers have embarked on an ambitious drive to hire software "codaholics," an effort that is increasingly pitting Detroit against its technology partners in Silicon Valley.
Just ask Raj Nair, who leads global product development for Ford Motor Co. Nair said he lobbied his niece to join the second-largest US automaker as an engineer. But her passions lay elsewhere. She now works for Microsoft Corp, Ford's partner on its in-car entertainment and communications technology.
"The auto industry is so much more high-tech than people realize," Nair said in an interview early this year. "So we're really competing against West Coast industries."
Four years after a sweeping industry restructuring that included massive job cuts, Ford and its US rivals need to hire thousands of engineers at a time when software is playing a much more prominent role in vehicle design than even a few years ago.
Millions of lines of computer code increasingly govern core vehicle functions like braking and air-conditioning. Electronic parts including sensors and microcontrollers, used in laptop computers and smartphones, are the backbone of such vehicles.
The shift has General Motors Co, Ford and Chrysler Group LLC vying for a new kind of talent - engineers with software, electronic and computer network skills - that has typically ignored Detroit. It has forced the auto industry to sweeten salaries and seek to burnish Michigan's image as a good place to work - no easy task, the automakers concede.
Ford is about halfway through its goal of hiring 3,000 salaried employees this year, as part of its largest hiring blitz in more than a decade. The bulk of these jobs will be engineers and IT specialists who will be based in Michigan.
GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson has said he wants to hire thousands of "codaholics" to write software applications for GM's lineup of vehicles.
But those same candidates are also fielding attractive offers from other industries - including the likes of Apple Inc and Google Inc. Executives, engineers and recruiters expect the war for talent only to intensify over the next several years.
"You look at the huge growth in the computer industry, cell phones, all the other technology that has become more interwoven in our daily lives," said James Kolhoff, GM's global chief engineer of transmission and hybrid controls.
"That's pulling on the same types of skill sets that we want to recruit in the automotive industry," he said.
THE CAR AS COMPUTER
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