Companies must be creative in a cutthroat recruiting environment, especially for in-demand engineers.

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College interns used to make coffee and open mail. Those days are gone.

Christian Cousin, a mechanical engineering student from Cape Coral, Florida, co-invented such groundbreaking technology during his 12-week internship at Eaton Valvetrain in Marshall, Michigan, that the company was inspired to file multiple patents and created a product prototype now used by a customer.

“Interns have this need to make a difference,” he said. “We don’t just want to sit around designing stationary objects in a warehouse. A company has to be aggressive.”

This is the mindset of new engineers in one of the fastest-growing industries in America.

Corporate leaders say they are rethinking how they recruit in the insanely competitive area of engineering.

“Much of the future of the automotive industry is going to be determined, and developed, right here in Detroit,” said Mark Reuss, executive vice president, GM global product development, purchasing and supply chain. “By 2020, it’s estimated that the United States will face a shortage of roughly half a million engineers, so we are working hard to offer the kinds of experiences and opportunities in Detroit that students are seeing in Silicon Valley and other technology hubs around the world.”

Young men and women from colleges around the country fill 400 engineering internships at GM in southeast Michigan alone. Driverless vehicles and electrification are a huge draw.

Now companies are targeting high school students more aggressively. Cristo Rey High School in Detroit feeds a pipeline of about 50 students a year through work-study programs at GM’s Tech Center, the Renaissance Center, Global Propulsion and other facilities.

“They’re not pushing paper,” Reuss said. “Some work on manufacturing processes, while others work on thermal development in GM’s wind tunnel, among other jobs. Recent graduates who worked for GM are in college engineering programs now, and will be among the company’s top recruiting targets when they graduate.”

Cousin, 25, now a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, said his internship at Eaton was the most aggressive and rewarding of half a dozen internships. He was encouraged to brainstorm ideas and given the resources to pursue them. He created a computer system that connected to an automobile engine physically and interface electronically. It essentially issues instructions to the engine that result in fuel savings.

These days, automotive companies must be creative in a cutthroat recruiting environment.

“Companies are competing for the few engineering graduates coming out,” said Larry Bennett, director, vehicle technologies and innovation at Eaton. “We have always had interns and co-op students, but in the last three years, we put a strategy around it.”

Potential employers are seeing greater hunger today among students, he said. “They’re willing to take career risks, rather than go into large, well-established companies that provide the security of a long career of 30 years.”

Fact is, billionaire tech leaders Elon Musk of Tesla and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook are the role models.

Not only is there interest in new technologies, but the combustion engine isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Our interns are asked to do serious work and every year they make valuable contributions to the business,” said Meeta Huggins, chief diversity officer and talent acquisitions operations at Ford Motor Co. “Assignments from last year’s class ranged from calibrating vehicle transmissions to designing algorithms for energy management on hybrid vehicles.”

Jeff Brown, 24, a mechanical engineering student from Battle Creek, Michigan, has been a Western Michigan University co-op student at Eaton for four years. He works full-time in the summer and part-time during the school year. “I’ve seen mistakes. I’ve had to redo things. And I see what it means to be part of the industry.”

He has been exposed to manufacturing, design, product development, hands-on technical experience. He has freedom to make decisions, propose solutions and work with engineers daily. His focus has been engine research that leads to better fuel economy and reducing greenhouse gases.

Vanessa Liddell, 24, of Marshall accepted a job at Eaton in product engineering after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from Kettering University. She works on projects involving medium and heavy duty transmissions used in tractor-trailers.

“For me, I wanted to feel like I was contributing and helping the business succeed, not just take up space,” she said. “Plus, you learn soft skills in the workplace that enhance what you do in the classroom, like how to communicate well with diverse groups of people and global teams.”

She said she had more than one internship and they were very, very different. “Eaton was inclusive, inviting, willing to sit down and teach me something to learn and grow.”

Developing young engineers is what Frank Menchaca does as chief product officer for the Society of Automotive Engineers, a global association based in Warrendale, Pa.

“Transportation is cool again,” he said. “Students are understanding they can enter into a field that has decades potentially of expansion. They can work on automated and connected vehicles, which allows them to think about smart cities, cybersecurity, the introduction of technology so the car can communicate with other cars. Revolutionary things are happening in the transportation industry. And that’s creating tremendous energy.”

Ann Zuzuly, 26, a lead software engineer for Eaton’s Vehicle Group, talks with high school students in southeast Michigan about aerodynamics and the impact on fuel economy and how it all relates to design. “It helps when students are able to interact with a real engineer. I don’t think a lot of students really know what engineering is. We have to get them excited about it.”

Young engineers are breathing strength and life into an already vibrant and evolving industry.

“They’re open-minded, they bring new vantage points,” said Jim McCarthy, chief engineer for vehicle technologies and innovation at Eaton. “I’ve challenged more people in the last five years than 10 years ago. I’ve challenged students beyond their means.”

And they meet the challenge. He noted with awe the intern — Christian Cousin — who helped make a cylinder deactivation controller for a diesel engine. Most nonengineers have no idea what that even means.

Eaton is a power management company that focuses on electrical products, electrical systems, hydraulics, aerospace and vehicles. The Michigan team alone sees hundreds of applications for internships every year.

McCarthy said Eaton, a global company that saw $20 billion in sales in 2017, proudly included three student speakers among five engineering presentations for a national conference in April 2018.

“Unprecedented,” he said. “You normally don’t put up someone who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree.”

His student, Brown, bristled at the idea of standing up in front of more than 50 engineers.

“He said, ‘I don’t know if I want to do that. What if I’m bad?'” McCarthy said. “I said, ‘If you’re bad, you’re a senior in college. But if you’re good, you’re a senior in college. You can’t lose.’ And he was brilliant.”

Corporate leaders are seeing a new breed of engineer, seeking mentors and colleagues with an approach not seen in memory. Engineering students say they want to learn about success, failure and not giving up.

At Eaton, Bennett jokes that he went to Western University to play second base and didn’t make the baseball team. He entered a pilot program but the son of a telescope maintenance mechanic couldn’t afford the required flight classes so he enrolled in aviation engineering to follow what he loved.

Students talk of friendships made with engineers and discussions that impact their career choices.

“This generation is definitely showing much more of an interest in innovation and doing something new,” said Dr. Craig Hoff, dean of the College of Engineering at Kettering. “I’ve talked to recent alums at a couple different automakers. They told me how they loved their jobs. Thirty years ago, engineers were not telling me they loved their jobs.”

When he asks what inspires the passion, young engineers say they’re being encouraged to rethink ideas previously accepted as gospel.

“They’re not getting beat up if they have a bad idea that doesn’t work. They’re being encouraged to be innovative. They’re given time to work on projects,” Hoff said. “If you look at Ford and GM and others, they’re redoing the whole landscape of their office, making it more Google-like. It’s a pretty happy situation.”