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Help wanted: The future of automotive talent is shifting gears

30 November, 2017

Ray Telang
Automotive Leader, PwC US
John Karren
Industrial Products People & Organization Leader, PwC US

Talk about rapid change. An industry once thought to be on the brink of collapse, saved by a multi-billion dollar government rescue, is not only thriving – it’s at the forefront of global technological innovation. Yes, we’re talking about the fiercely competitive automotive industry. After a dramatic recovery and years of robust growth, auto manufacturers are continuing to invest heavily in research and development as they transition to an environment defined by “shared mobility.”

Major OEMs are racing to develop a range of alternative propulsion (hybrid, electric, fuel cell), connected and self-driving vehicles – while continuing to improve operational efficiencies that aim to sustain profits. In turn, business models and production facilities across the auto supply chain are being reconsidered and, in some cases, upended. The pressure is on as consumers and organizations across the industry spectrum look to use cars in new ways that seemed unimaginable only a few years ago. As a result, industry players are focused on attracting an evolved pool of talent. This next-generation workforce not only requires strong engineering and technological abilities, they need to excel in an ever-evolving industry that increasingly relies on innovative ideas, versatility and collaboration.

Once defined primarily by a vast lunch-box workforce, the auto sector is now competing for talent in Silicon Valley and beyond. Technology has certainly replaced many assembly line positions, but hiring needs have concurrently expanded into other areas of the auto market. And while it’s not quite a human versus machine dynamic, it is in large measure a result of the significant challenge the industry has undertaken to accelerate the development of connected and autonomous vehicles. Finding the brightest engineers and computer scientists also offers opportunities to continuously improve the existing processes related to vehicle assembly.

This requires an ongoing transformation across the automotive landscape with regard to what skill sets to look for and where to find them. At the forefront of change is the introduction of digital products and services that power autonomous, electric and connected cars. Digital technology is elevating the customer experience and creating a more intuitive “always-on” platform within the vehicle. It’s no longer about just getting from point A to point B. Rather, it’s increasingly about what else can be accomplished during a trip while improving the customer experience with the use of advanced data analytics and predictive services.

What we’re really talking about here is reconceiving the car as a highly personalized and powerful digital device. This calls for educating, developing and rewarding young engineers who think differently. The industry needs to attract a greater number of mechanical engineers, software quality assurance engineers, and computer application and systems software engineers that are passionate about how consumers interact in the digital world. OEMs will also need to pursue more electronic engineers who are apt to understanding the complexities of digitally connected systems. This step-change in focus will allow OEMs to become a more intrinsic part of the so called “roboconomy,” where autos become a more important part of the mobile and connected digital ecosystem.

Complementing the digital brain trust is an increasing need to find engineers and scientists who can create solutions that drive further efficiencies throughout the auto ecosystem. Continued improvements will require finding those minds that can offer a more holistic approach. Take the traditional supply chain, for example. Increased access to data via sensors enables companies to better analyze their timing and costs across multiple modes of transport, allowing for improved efficiencies and savings. In turn, those savings can be redirected to help fund further investment in areas related to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

Likewise, the auto industry will need to attract the best and most practical ideas with regard to pursuing and perfecting environmentally friendly manufacturing processes, as well as investment standards for the sake of the climate and emissions reduction. Businesses and consumers are placing greater value on green initiatives, especially in the highly advanced and well-designed products they love. In fact, 23% of respondents to our new workforce study said ‘doing a job that makes a difference’ is most important to their career. This will continue to incentivize OEMs to hire executives who are committed to sustainability and corporate social responsibility, as well as those who know how to effectively market such endeavors to build brand affinity.

As the auto industry undergoes these rapid advancements, they’ll logically expand their pool of talent to include other sectors. Finding engineers, scientists and marketers who are immersed in all things digital will, perhaps, be more important than having auto industry experience. In many ways, the automobile is arguably more akin to a smartphone, with its numerous and instantaneous uses, rather than a method of transportation. Because, let’s face it, this heightened level of convenience that customers have become accustomed to is what they expect the industry to adapt to.

In our latest “Workforce of the Future” study, PwC delved into the competing forces shaping the future of work in 2030, including how technology, automation and AI are changing the skills that businesses are looking for in their talent. The good news is that 74% of respondents said they were ready to learn new skills or re-train to remain employable. And 65% think technology will improve their job prospects in the future. For the auto industry, this isn’t a time to sit back and wait for events to unfold. Those who plan ahead to understand what potential future scenarios might mean for them will likely be the best prepared to succeed.

We look forward to discussing this topic at the 2017 MICHauto Summit in Detroit, Michigan – a key economic development initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber, dedicated to promoting, retaining and growing the automotive industry. This year’s event will spotlight the exciting culture and evolving, fast-paced career opportunities in Michigan’s automotive and mobility industry.