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Why General Motors is scrambling to find tech workers

GM employees from all levels and responsibility were asked to predict what jobs will be needed to help create the products of the future and a company where people want to work.GM employees from all levels and responsibility were asked to predict what jobs will be needed to help create the products of the future and a company where people want to work.

When you hear the phrase “tech company,” the auto industry is probably not the first thing that pops into your head. General Motors (GM), for one, would like to change that.

“We need people who can develop software to control every aspect of a car’s operations,” says Ken Kelzer, GM’s global head of vehicle components and subsystems. “But recruiting software talent, especially campus recruiting, is very difficult”—to the point, he notes, where some of GM’s suppliers have given up trying to hire their own developers and are now buying software companies outright.

Part of Big Auto’s problem is that it’s so…big. Stacks of surveys show that Millennials, in particular, want to work for sexy startups or for famously fun outfits like Google. About 60% of 2015 grads in a new Accenture poll said they would choose a job at a company with a “positive social atmosphere” even if it paid less, while only 15% said they’d consider working for a huge global corporation.

Still, making cars “is a high-tech industry now,” says Kelzer, even if most IT job seekers don’t perceive it that way. Besides engineers to work on battery, hybrid, and plug-in vehicles and new alternative-fuel sources, here are a few items from GM’s IT-talent wish list:

Data scientists: GM and other automakers need analysts who can create algorithms to process the plethora of data thrown off by a car’s electronic systems, partly so that spotting malfunctions early is quick and user-friendly, and partly to allow cars to perform tasks like choosing the quickest route to a destination.

Programmers and designers: “A car isn’t going to be a smartphone or a tablet or whatever the next Big Thing is, but it will be a platform that allows the next big thing to connect easily to the vehicle and its occupants,” says Kelzer. “Coders and developers are only going to be in more demand.” Built-in WiFi hot spots, it seems, are only the beginning.

Autonomous driving engineer: GM is taking steps toward self-driving cars with the vehicle-to-vehicle crash-prevention technology on its 2017 Cadillac CTS. After that will come Super Cruise, a “semi-autonomous” driving feature in the Cadillac CT6 sedan. The race to introduce a self-driving vehicle will take “sensor experts, radar developers, and all types of engineers,” says Kelzer.

3D printing engineer: The potential uses of 3D printing in the design and engineering world “are just beginning to be realized,” Kelzer notes. “A part mockup that once took weeks to create can now be printed in a matter of hours.” Faster prototypes don’t just save time, he adds. They can also lead to “more options to be tested, and better end products.”

Building ever more sophisticated electronics in cars “takes an army,” says Kelzer. “Even developing just a state-of-the-art dashboard infotainment system can take 800 or 1,000 people.”

GM is clearly optimistic about its ability to attract more IT talent. Earlier this month, the company announced a plan to invest about $1 billion to expand its Warren Technical Center, in Warren, Mich. The R&D facility, which already employs about 19,000 engineers and techies, will add 2,600 new jobs.