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Ford hiring, but has trouble filling white-collar jobs

epa01502982 The grill of a Ford Flex in front of Ford Motor Company's headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, USA on 27 September 2008.  September 27 is t...
A Ford Flex in front of Ford Motor Co headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, in September 2008. Ford is hiring, but having trouble filling white-collar jobs. JEFF KOWALSKY

Ford Motor Co. plans to hire about 3,000 engineers and other professionals this year, but standing conventional wisdom on its head, the Detroit automaker is finding it difficult to come up with enough workers to fill all those spots.

And it’s not alone. Cross-town rivals General Motors and Chrysler have been trying to re-fill their own employee ranks decimated by cutbacks during the Great Recession, as have scores of automotive suppliers. But a surprising number of those slots remain open for lack of qualified talent.

“It’s much more difficult getting the right people” than it was in decades past, laments Felicia Fields, group vice president of Human Resources for Ford, reflecting a shift in “the type of people” the automaker needs in an era when high technology systems have become as much a part of today’s vehicles as traditional, mechanical devices.

Just ask Graydon Reitz, head of Ford’s Global Electrical and Electronics System Engineering operations. His group is responsible, among other things, for the development of the Ford Sync and MyFord Touch infotainment technologies. Such systems have become a key differentiator in today’s auto industry and making them work right is just as demanding, he contends, as the latest software for an Apple or Android smartphone.

“It’s a very different set of skills we need now compared to what was” needed in decades past when a Ford engineer was more likely hired because of mechanical skills like engine design or the ability to configure sheet metal stamping dies.

Reitz’s unit alone has been hoping to hire 160 engineers this year but has so far been able to snag just 80. Overall, Ford began 2013 looking for 2,200 new white-collar workers, about 80 percent for its engineering operations. It has since increased the headcount hunt to 3,000, according to HR chief Fields, and has plenty of slots left to fill.

“It’s more difficult, more complex,” she says, and not just because of the different skills workers may need in today’s auto industry. The problem is that Ford is no longer just competing for talent against the likes of GM, or even Volkswagen or Toyota, but also against consumer electronics firms ranging from Apple to Google to Dell.

It has to convince some skeptical prospects that the auto industry can offer as much of a challenge as Silicon Valley, while also trying to promote Detroit as an appealing home base – something that can be particularly challenging at a time when the Motor City is in the midst of the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

On the positive side, electronics group chief Reitz has found that many tech industry veterans are open to new opportunities and also find appealing the much lower cost of living in Michigan where a sprawling suburban home close to work can cost lost than a single-bedroom apartment over an hour’s commute away from a Mountain View or Palo Alto office.

But simply finding the right candidates has required Ford’s headhunters to learn new tricks. Forget Help Wanted signs or ads in local newspapers. They’re turning to social media outlets like Linked-In, Facebook and even Pinterest, notes Fields.

While neither Fields nor Reitz will discuss specific pay packages, they acknowledge that Ford has had to accept the fact that compensation packages need to be competitive with the often lucrative deals Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers have been paying.

The auto industry’s increased focus on high technology means that many of the workers displaced by the Recession won’t be able to go back to work at Ford or one of its competitors without extensive retraining.

Between 2006 and 2009, Ford eliminated 13,000 white-collar jobs in the U.S. It has since slowly begun ramping up the workforce and after bringing in 1,850 new salaried employees last year it now has a workforce of around 28,000 professionals. So, even with the additional 3,000 coming aboard in 2013, its ranks are well below pre-crash levels.

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