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Q&A with Nexteer Automotive: Staff retention and recruitment in the global automotive industry

By Matthew Beecham | 8 May 2012

Pascale Ruiz, Nexteer Automotive’s Human Resources Director for Europe

Pascale Ruiz, Nexteer Automotive’s Human Resources Director for Europe

Continuing just-auto’s series of interviews with leading automotive component manufacturers, Matthew Beecham talked with Pascale Ruiz, Nexteer Automotive’s Human Resources Director for Europe about staff and recruitment issues in the automotive industry.

How serious is the question of recruitment and staff retention at the moment for suppliers?

Keeping and attracting the best people is always a serious issue for automotive companies, especially as demand for engineers is particularly high for those with expertise in software and electronics. The supply of talent is not increasing quickly enough for some companies.

More vehicles require electric drives and have higher levels of electronic content. As a result, engineers are becoming much more selective about where they choose to work. They want an employer in good financial health and is still growing and they want a workplace that will provide further opportunities for growth.

We know there are companies, which neglected their employees’ training and development during the recession, that are seeing the consequences now. Nexteer has spent a lot of time developing the right kind of people in-house. It’s not a quick solution, but if you can build a reputation for producing high-calibre people, it becomes much easier to attract the right external candidates for jobs.

Some are re-focusing their R&D on new areas and finding that they have not developed the right skills in-house and that people, generally, are less willing to change jobs. We’ve had to work hard to create our good fortune in this area. Becoming independent and operating under temporary ownership while new owners were found for Nexteer, we knew we couldn’t take our people for granted. During our restructuring, we were very focused on retaining and continuing to develop our people. We have been designing our own electronics and producing all our software in-house for some time and we knew this was a competitive advantage worth protecting.

How did you manage staff retention during restructuring and a drawn-out sales process?

Restructuring is not an easy time for the people in an organization. We worked hard on fostering a kind of family-atmosphere at the company and so in some ways all the turbulence brought us closer together. Our management and leaders put a lot of effort into communicating what was going on during each stage of the process.

Our people were clear on what we needed to do as a business and what their contribution would mean. We needed them not just to survive the process but so that we could emerge as a strong, independent company. Everybody respected that and so the tough conditions created a lot of opportunities for our people to develop their careers and expertise.

We were recently ranked highly in an independent survey of employers by the Great Place to Work institute, which noted the company’s family spirit. We hope it shows the way Nexteer looks after its people works. Making sure that everybody’s contribution is valued is important for staff retention and for encouraging high-performance.

Nexteer is winning business, but its name is still relatively little known in the industry. How does being a new name in the industry affect recruitment?

Of course, it’s better if people recognize your name. Nexteer is really the latest incarnation of a company that was founded more than 100 years ago, so we’re not exactly a start-up. It will take a little time for the reputation we’ve built to re-attach itself to the new name, but we know that it will. And really, we believe that what motivates and attracts people is not only the brand, but the fact that we get results. It does help that we have been winning a lot of future business and that we’re one of the leaders in electric power steering. Not many new companies can say they have achieved $10 billion of lifetime revenue over the past 30 months – and we’re supplying a technology to which the entire industry is transitioning. These are definite plus-points when recruiting.

How have attitudes to careers in the automotive industry changed?

People want more responsibility and more opportunities to work globally now. They are less prepared to tolerate rigid corporate structures, which they perceive as restrictive to their development. Everybody expects the fast-track treatment for their career. If you don’t allow people to move around more within the organization, they will seek opportunities with other companies. Employers have to provide for this more, but it’s not such a problem: it’s exactly what Tier Ones need to do in order to be successful.

An important factor is that Nexteer does not hesitate to entrust junior employees, to allow them to grow up, to develop their potential and build up their experience. This is one of the keys areas in ensuring Nexteer’s success.

Corporate culture has become much more important as well. Companies have to create a working environment where everybody is encouraged to speak their mind freely. Having people who are free to offer ideas and criticism is what gives us the continuous improvement that benefits our employees, products and customers alike. It also means Nexteer can attract the right people when we recruit – we get applications from people looking for opportunities to learn and develop their careers, knowledge and skills. They also want an environment where they can actually see their personal contributions and where they can speak up and be heard.

What are the short and long term solutions for the industry’s skills shortages?

We’ve learned that it’s not necessarily a question of specific skills being in short supply: the right mindset can be just as important. Developing and producing complex electro-mechanical systems, such as electric power steering, is much more of a team effort. Your people have to communicate well, work together closely and with a lot of urgency. You need a much more frankness and a real family spirit for people to deliver effectively.

Creating this kind of culture makes it easier to develop people in-house and also makes your company more attractive as a workplace. Companies need to think long-term about their people, not just in terms of the skills they need today but also what they will need tomorrow.

In the longer term, companies and individuals need to spend more time working with schools and universities. The industry needs to encourage interest in engineering careers from an early age and we need to ensure that students receive work experience opportunities and the right support in their studies.

How likely is it that recruitment issues in Europe and North America will accelerate the migration of engineering to emerging markets such as India and China?

I don’t see jobs migrating to Asia from Europe and North America. Nexteer has operations in India and China as well as Mexico, the USA and Europe, so it’s natural for us to recruit in emerging markets and for our people to have the opportunity to work overseas. It’s important for global suppliers to offer global career opportunities and this is increasing.