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DETROIT/YUMA, Arizona (Reuters) - Automakers have embarked on an ambitious drive to hire software "codaholics," an effort that is increasingly pitting Detroit against its technology partners in Silicon Valley.
Just ask Raj Nair, who leads global product development for Ford Motor Co (F.N). Nair said he lobbied his niece to join the second-largest U.S. automaker as an engineer. But her passions lay elsewhere. She now works for Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O), Ford's partner on its in-car entertainment and communications technology.
"The auto industry is so much more high-tech than people realize," Nair said in an interview early this year. "So we're really competing against West Coast industries."
Four years after a sweeping industry restructuring that included massive job cuts, Ford and its U.S. rivals need to hire thousands of engineers at a time when software is playing a much more prominent role in vehicle design than even a few years ago.
Millions of lines of computer code increasingly govern core vehicle functions like braking and air-conditioning. Electronic parts including sensors and microcontrollers, used in laptop computers and smartphones, are the backbone of such vehicles.
The shift has General Motors Co (GM.N), Ford and Chrysler Group LLC FIA.MI vying for a new kind of talent - engineers with software, electronic and computer network skills - that has typically ignored Detroit. It has forced the auto industry to sweeten salaries and seek to burnish Michigan's image as a good place to work - no easy task, the automakers concede.
Ford is about halfway through its goal of hiring 3,000 salaried employees this year, as part of its largest hiring blitz in more than a decade. The bulk of these jobs will be engineers and IT specialists who will be based in Michigan.
GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson has said he wants to hire thousands of "codaholics" to write software applications for GM's lineup of vehicles.
But those same candidates are also fielding attractive offers from other industries - including the likes of Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and Google Inc (GOOG.O). Executives, engineers and recruiters expect the war for talent only to intensify over the next several years.
"You look at the huge growth in the computer industry, cell phones, all the other technology that has become more interwoven in our daily lives," said James Kolhoff, GM's global chief engineer of transmission and hybrid controls.
"That's pulling on the same types of skill sets that we want to recruit in the automotive industry," he said.
This spring, 15 teams of students from U.S. and Canadian universities gathered in a large workshop next to a desert Army base in Yuma, Arizona, as part of the EcoCar 2 engineering competition. The event, sponsored by GM and the U.S. Department of Energy, calls on contestants to modify a Chevrolet Malibu sedan to make it more fuel-efficient.
For GM, events like this are crucial to attracting people like Amanda Hyde, 24, who is working on a masters degree in mechanical engineering at Ohio State University.
Hyde described herself as a minority among her peers for being a bona fide car nut who "gets chills" whenever she opens the hood of a car. This summer, she is an intern at GM's proving grounds in Milford, Michigan.
"As a mechanical engineer, I mourn a little bit that the car is turning into a computer," said Hyde, who competed in the EcoCar event in May. But she adds: "You can't make it at a major automaker without an understanding of software."
Earlier this month, Ford offered free software updates to its hybrid owners to boost gasoline mileage - a type of update that would not have been possible just a decade ago.
The role of computer systems in the vehicle is growing as consumers clamor for "connected" cars that can sync with smartphones, provide real-time traffic reports or parallel-park themselves.
Ernst & Young predicts that 104 million vehicles worldwide will have some form of connectivity in the next dozen years. That is more than five times the 20 million such cars expected to be sold this year, the consulting firm said in a recent report.
"So many things that we're controlling via software such as the active grille shutters, how we manage cooling and temperatures - all of those were mechanically controlled in the past," Nair said.
"As a percentage of product development, there is a much heavier focus on the electronics and software side than five, ten years ago," he said.
The competition has already pushed up starting salaries for software engineers and forced recruiters to redouble their hiring efforts. There are five software and electrical engineering jobs for every college graduate in these fields, said Garth Motschenbacher, director of employer relations at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Five years ago, auto engineers were willing to accept starting salaries between $50,000 and $45,000, said Matt LePage, lead technical recruiter for GTA Staffing, a Dearborn, Michigan-based firm focused on the auto industry.
Now, starting annual salaries can be two-thirds higher, ranging from between $65,000 and $75,000 or even higher, according to LePage and others including staffing firms and university officials.
"We do recognize that the cost of living is very different here than in the West Coast," said Felicia Fields, Ford's vice president of human resources. "So we're not trying to match that. We're paying competitively for this area, and that's where the vast majority of these jobs are."
In many ways, the explosive growth in Silicon Valley today mirrors the boom in Detroit about a hundred years ago when Henry Ford more than doubled worker wages to $5 a day. In recent years, however, the U.S. auto industry and Detroit itself have been marred by job losses and diminished prospects.
Automakers are redoubling their recruiting efforts to combat that image, by showing how they have changed since the 2009 economic crisis that pushed GM and Chrysler Group LLC into bankruptcy.
Pitching the Detroit area as a desirable place to live has also been a perennial challenge, one that grew a little tougher after the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection last week.
Fields said Ford recruiters are told to address those issues head-on, while also promoting the positive elements of the region, such as the burgeoning development downtown, sports teams and Michigan's natural resources.
"The incredible competition for technical people in so many companies and so many industries, it is much more difficult," she said. "We can't just pick a number and find all the candidates. We have to work much harder."
Additional reporting by Ben Klayman and Joseph Lichterman in Detroit and Timothy McLaughlin in Boston; editing by Matthew Lewis