TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Denso has a new plan to address the industrywide shortage of engineers for a future of electric vehicles and advanced electronics: It is encouraging its associates to transform themselves.
Like many automotive companies, Denso is rich in mechanical engineers — the preferred discipline for the past century of internal combustion vehicles. But it’s short-handed on electrical engineers, mechatronics engineers and software engineers — the people needed to handle EVs and autonomous driving technology programs.
The Japanese supplier giant, with a huge presence in Michigan and Tennessee, is now gearing up a program it calls Power Shift, in which its powertrain engineers will volunteer to go back to school to learn a new discipline of engineering, said Dan Ronayne, Denso’s director of engineering for powertrain.
“We’re going to be changing,” Ronayne told Automotive News on the sidelines of the CAR Management Briefing Seminars here. “We want our associates to change with us. The people we already have are good at working with our customers and understand how Denso does things, and we want to teach them the skills they need to move into the new products.”
He said the first few engineers have begun the re-skilling process. There are about 30 engineers in the U.S. operation’s internal combustion engine group. Powertrain engineering of all kinds has about 70, while Denso’s U.S. thermal products group has 50 to 60 engineers.
Auto companies large and small are looking for more engineers these days.
International engineering consulting firm Ricardo has been competing with bigger companies to recruit 50 to 60 engineers who can tackle EVs, batteries and fuel cells, says Ed Frutig, the company’s vice president of business development.
But two factors are complicating the effort, he said.
First, the competition has driven up engineer salaries by 15 to 20 percent in the greater Detroit market, he estimates. And second, engineering schools are not yet delivering big numbers of graduates who are ready for the advanced range of products the industry is working on.
“Mechanical engineers have 15 or 20 years to ride out the existing internal combustion programs that will still be around,” Frutig said outside of the briefing seminars. “But after that, a lot of them just won’t be needed.”
Denso is trying to steer its people away from that ending. The company prides itself on not laying off associates during the Great Recession, and it also has refrained from layoffs during the pandemic, Ronayne said.
“So we’re working on figuring out what our customers need and then getting our engineers re-skilled to deliver it. We’re looking at how to create programs to help them do it.
“What we want are mechanical engineers who also understand the other side,” he said. “Things are still going to break, and we’ll still need mechanical engineers to fix things. But everything has a chip in it now, and everything has software in it now. We want them to be able to fix both parts.”
Re-skilling will not necessarily require engineers to return to a campus setting. So much advanced learning is done remotely now that most of the engineers will be able to make the change without leaving their desks.
But the clock is ticking, Ronayne added.
“Our goal is to be carbon neutral by 2035, so we need to have our product portfolio ready by then,” he said. “Our first priority is to understand what our customers need. As our customers’ plans become clearer, we can begin to see what we need to do.”
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