General Motors hired a whopping 55 graduates of one such program, Challenge X, and another 16 from the still-ongoing EcoCar. And there are still plenty of job openings for people with passion, a degree and the right stuff.
Mainstream automakers are electrifying their fleets, and they can't do it with veteran engineers whose whole careers are wedded to internal combustion. They need fresh perspectives, and they're getting them from young and hungry kids right out of college. It helps that they're also sponsoring eco-car competitions: Automakers can pick and choose, and they do.
The future of auto engineering lies not with 20-years-and-out time servers but with young men and women (and there are a fair number of women) with a real commitment to changing the industry from the ground up. After its near-death experience, GM understands that its culture -- which has often awarded yes men, not innovators -- needs a major makeover.
What GM can offer is a real chance to work on new technology. "It's a great thing to be able to step out of school and go to work on the cutting edge of the industry," said Micky Bly, GM's executive director for hybrid electric vehicles and batteries. Deeply involved himself, he calls the competitions "a passion of mine." Other automakers have hired through the competitions, too, but GM was the main sponsor for both Challenge X and EcoCar, so it's been far more involved than others.
So far, the hiring hasn't created any new dead wood: Every one of the newly hired Challenge X engineers made it through the company's bankruptcy intact. "Once we brought them on board, not one has let us down," said Bly.
As an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin and a member of the Challenge X team that "greened" a Chevy Equinox, Dan Mehr put in 80-hour weeks -â€" not in the classroom, but in the garage. He slept there at least one night a week.
Challenge X, which ran from 2004 to 2008, was sponsored by the Department of Energy and General Motors, and Mississippi State came in first. Wisconsin took second with its parallel plug-in hybrid electric, powered by biodiesel. So Mehr's team didn't take the top honors, but he got the ultimate prize -â€" a job at GM. He's been an energy storage integration engineer, working on the in-flux plug-in hybrid car program, for two years. And now he's a mentor at Challenge X's successor, EcoCar.
Maybe it's good that the students did not start out to be GM lifers, but explored everything else under the sun -- that gives them wide life experience that should prove useful in the automaker's insular culture. "My plan was to get an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, then go to law school and become a patent lawyer," said Mehr, who hadn't even considered going to work at a manufacturer. "Absolutely not," he said. "I'd never opened the hood of a car, never used a wrench. I didn't know anything about green cars or hybrid technology."
Challenge X was like total immersion in a corporate skunkworks, more or less duplicating the insane time commitment of creating a new model on a tight deadline. Mehr says that the student competitions "do a tremendous job of providing students a chance to learn about the auto industry. They train students in real time to be the next-generation work force."
The interesting thing about EcoCar and Challenge X is that they may be recruiting grounds for auto manufacturers, but the students aren't taking part just to get hired. The programs fire their imaginations about taking cars out of the environmental equation. They want to be part of changing the world.
EcoCar has just been finished the second of a four-year program, with students bringing their cars (Saturn Vues) out to Yuma, Arizona for some hard time on GM's test track. A fair number of the cars, including a pair powered by fuel cells, had mechanical challenges and never actually made it to the track. But that's OK -â€" the students learned a lot about the importance of ensuring that power electronics actually work.
On a visit to Yuma, I saw kids working well past the point of exhaustion -- and many cars in total pieces on the shop floor -- including those two fuel-cell cars. "We gave them fishing poles, but we didn't teach them how to fish," said Bly. "They had to learn that on their own." But Bly said that the widespread controller problems led GM to set up a one-week immersion course (taught by company engineers) for EcoCar teams in Milford, Michigan.
The competitions give recruiters that had mainly looked only at the top engineering schools new insights about talent to be found all over the country. "Mississippi State, for instance, was never on our radar screen until we had them here for Challenge X," said Bly.
According to Bly, GM has an additional 100 openings for electric car engineers. It's sitting on 400 to 500 resumes, but kids who've been through EcoCar or Challenge X might have a leg up.