Industry Jolted by EV Engineer Shortage

Magna, which is seeking shareholder approval of a $220 million investment in an EV-related joint venture, wants to increase by 20% its complement of mechatronics engineers.

Eric Mayne, Senior Editor

May 7, 2010

5 Min Read
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The already-tight market for mechatronics engineers just got more competitive with Thursday’s announcement of a proposed joint venture, led by Magna International Inc. founder Frank Stronach, to develop vehicle-electrification technology.

Subject to shareholder approval, expected as early as next month, the deal sees Magna invest $220 million, including the assets of its recently established E-Car Systems business unit. In return, the supplier would acquire a 73% stake in the yet-unnamed JV.

Stronach personally commits $80 million to acquire the remaining 27%, while also assuming control of the organization.

The 77-year-old entrepreneur will devote “his full time and attention to the JV,” Magna co-CEO Don Walker says during the supplier’s first-quarter earnings call. Stronach “is a very big believer in the future of electric vehicles,” he adds.

Stronach is not alone. And that has caused notable tension in the industry as auto makers and suppliers jockey for the engineering talent required to keep pace with a trend that could see electric vehicles account for some 10% of the market by 2020.

Accordingly, Magna has been actively hunting for engineers with the appropriate skills. “We cannot find enough mechatronics engineers,” says Edwin Haas, senior vice president and engineering chief at the supplier’s engine-technology division, Magna Powertrain Inc.

Haas tells Ward’s before today’s announcement that Magna has been seeking to increase its complement of mechatronics engineers to 35% from the current 15%.

The Magna disclosure comes a day after Detroit-based Wayne State University announces the establishment of degree programs, both undergraduate and graduate, in electric-drive vehicle engineering.

Funded by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the programs begin this fall to address the “transformative shift in the automobile industry from petroleum-powered engines to renewable, resource-based, electric-powered motors.”

Magna founder Frank Stronach “big believer” in EVs.

Detroit is emerging as a center of EV engineering study as Ford Motor Co. evolves a program at the University of Detroit-Mercy, and suburban Detroit’s Oakland University launches a masters-level mechatronics course this fall.

“I’ve been telling them for years, ‘You’ve got to do this,’” says Bill Mattingly, an Oakland University board member and vice president-business development at Automotive Systems Integrators LLC, a Michigan-based provider of electrical-engineering services.

In the past, Mattingly tells Ward’s, “Electrical engineers did electrical stuff. Mechanical engineers did mechanical stuff.”

Then control systems began to proliferate. “First it was electronic fuel injection,” Mattingly says. “Then it was airbag systems, then chassis systems and on and on.”

But today’s proliferation of electrified powertrains requires engineers with specific expertise.

“That’s the part where you really have to have engineers that understand the mechanical side and the electrical side,” Mattingly says. “You can’t have this nice separating wall like you used to have.”

However, while academia is “catching up,” an intense talent tug-of-war is raging in the industry, says Robert J. Last, FEV Inc. vice president-comunications.

“Internally, organizations are trying to protect that talent as much as they can,” Last says, adding FEV is “doing what everbody else is doing – paying competitive salaries.”

Referring to engineers with expertise in algorithm development and battery management as “the crown jewels,” he notes it is “not atypical” for auto makers to recruit from suppliers such as FEV.

Such practices are not new to the industry. But in this case, the stakes may be higher, suggests Mike Donoughe, senior partner with St. Clair Consortium, a Michigan-based business consultancy.

Regulatory pressure to improve fleet fuel economy and reduce vehicle emissions have auto makers over a barrel. “Left to its own devices, given the relative expense of the technology, companies wouldn’t be doing it,” Donoughe says of electrification.

Elon Musk, founder of California-based EV maker Tesla Motors Inc., tells Ward’s the engineer shortage is “no surprise” because the proliferation of EVs represents “the biggest change in the car business since the production line.”

Tesla founder Elon Musk: Retrain today’s engineers.

So there is no time to wait for academia to meet the challenge. Today’s engineers need to retrain, Musk says.

“Hardly anything is purely mechanical anymore,” Donoughe adds. “It’s electromechanical.” And he knows whereof he speaks. His career has taken him from developing body-on-frame SUVs for the former Chrysler LLC to executive vice president-engineering and manufacturing at Tesla.

Donoughe pours water on the notion that the industry is in crisis. There may be short-term program delays, “but we’re not talking years.”

Historically, the U.S. industry “moves heaven and Earth” to meet deadlines. “Somehow, you get it done,” he says.

Chrysler Group LLC recently announced plans for a limited production run of plug-in hybrid Ram pickups next year, followed by an all-electric Fiat 500 in 2012. And Chrysler will provide the engineering know-how for both.

Has the auto maker had trouble filling those jobs? “Fundamentally, no,” says Scott Kunselman, senior vice president-engineering.

“Yes, I need certain types of engineers to do optimization work, (but) we had quite a few on board,” he tells Ward’s.

Chrysler recently folded its ENVI EV development group into the larger organization, along with engineers assigned to “Hybrid House,” its now-defunct HEV partnership with Daimler AG, BMW AG and General Motors Co.

Veteran engineer Chris Theodore, whose fingerprints are on the Dodge Viper and Ford GT, also is unfazed.

“There is an imbalance,” Theodore says, referring to the dearth of mechatronics engineers. “There’s more knowledge required.”

But the shortage is temporary, and the impact of EVs on automotive engineering should not be exaggerated.

“The pendulum will swing the other way,” he tells Ward’s. “When all is said and done, we’re in a physical world.”

But Magna’s Haas is more cynical. In the decades ahead, he believes mechatronics engineers will play an increasingly significant role in vehicle development.

“Electrification will come sooner or later, because the resources of oil are limited,” Haas says. “In 30, maybe 40 years, it will be gone.”

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About the Author(s)

Eric Mayne

Senior Editor, WardsAuto

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