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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, May 13, 2018 1:00 am

Engineers in high demand

Employers recruiting at young level to fill growing vacancies

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

Bharat Rajghatta has a 9-year-old daughter who is thinking about careers, possibly following in his footsteps and becoming an engineer.

Rajghatta, who is president of the Fort Wayne Engineers Club, credits his daughter's interest partly to the emphasis some schools are placing on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math fields. In some cases, talk about career options focuses on STEAM, which adds arts to the mix.

“At the school level, there has been a concerted effort,” Rajghatta, a former Navistar International employee who also has a 7-year-old son, said last week. But having a parent role model can also spark interest.

“We talk about it every day. My daughter says, 'I want to be an engineer.' ... I love my profession, and I'm certainly encouraging her to be in the field if she desires,” said Rajghatta, although he is in transition and currently working in financial services.

Plenty of employers might welcome his daughter to the engineering arena. Even internships are readily being filled in many areas for students still working on an engineering degree.

Christian Cousin, a mechanical engineering student from Cape Coral, Florida, co-invented such groundbreaking technology during his 12-week internship at Eaton Valvetrain in Marshall, Michigan, that the company was inspired to file multiple patents and created a product prototype now used by a customer.

“Interns have this need to make a difference,” Cousin said. “We don't just want to sit around designing stationary objects in a warehouse. A company has to be aggressive.”

And corporate leaders say they are rethinking how they recruit in the insanely competitive area of engineering.

“Much of the future of the automotive industry is going to be determined, and developed, right here in Detroit,” said Mark Reuss, GM's executive vice president for global product development.

“By 2020, it's estimated that the United States will face a shortage of roughly half a million engineers, so we are working hard to offer the kinds of experiences and opportunities in Detroit that students are seeing in Silicon Valley and other technology hubs around the world.”

Young men and women from colleges around the country fill 400 engineering internships at GM in southeast Michigan alone. Driverless vehicles and electrification are a huge draw.

Now companies are targeting high school students more aggressively. Cristo Rey High School in Detroit feeds a pipeline of about 50 students a year through work-study programs at GM's Tech Center, the Renaissance Center, Global Propulsion and other facilities.

“They're not pushing paper,” Reuss said. “Some work on manufacturing processes, while others work on thermal development in GM's wind tunnel, among other jobs. Recent graduates who worked for GM are in college engineering programs now and will be among the company's top recruiting targets when they graduate.”

GM's Fort Wayne Assembly plant, like most of its other manufacturing sites, actively recruits and employs interns, Stephanie Jentgen, the local spokeswoman, said in an email response.

She described it as a competitive process that is handled on the corporate and local levels through formal arrangements with local and regional universities. The screening begins in the fall, with decisions made in early winter. While Jentgen did not provide numbers, she said this year's interns have already been selected.

Rajghatta thinks more people might be interested in engineering if the pay were higher.

“I think money is an important factor in getting kids,” he said. “Engineering does not pay as much as medicine or law, and money talks.”

Rajghatta estimates an entry-level engineer in the Fort Wayne market might earn more than $50,000 if they graduate from a notable university. He knows at least one Purdue University graduate whose starting salary was $65,000.

The salary would be higher in a larger city, and an engineer with at least 10 years of experience could easily make a six-figure salary, he said.

While a $50,000 starting salary would be desirable for many, Rajghatta recalled working for an auto supplier where some employees without degrees could earn six figures with enough overtime.

“I am hearing from many companies that they are having difficulty filling full-time positions in the areas of engineering and technology,” said Deb Barrick of Purdue University Fort Wayne. She is the university's director of the office of Academic Internships, Cooperative Education and Service Learning.

Barrick, in an email response, said the challenge also exists in other professions, which is partly due to baby boomers retiring. But STEM fields are “having a tougher time than others.”

Some companies are taking a “grow our own” approach, working with the university's Cooperative Education program to develop a talent pipeline for post-graduation jobs, Barrick said.

Co-op positions are multi-term, rotational work assignments that provide students “real world experience.”

The program, which Barrick described as “much like a long-term interview,” benefits students exploring career options and employers.

“I have one local manufacturer who has hired their graduating co-op student into a full-time job each year for the past four years,” Barrick said. “They are batting 1.000.”

The Detroit Free Press contributed to this story.