Manufacturing News

China's EV startups in bidding war for engineers, designers

China's biggest iPhone maker, largest e-commerce company and leading Internet video producer are all in the hunt to build electric cars -- and to grab the small pool of available talent to build them.

All of this is great news for marketing professional Ronan Lu, 32. The bidding wars see some workers earning double their peers' salaries and others landing jobs with minimal experience, according to recruiters.

"Many companies offered me job opportunities with good payment, but I chose LeEco because I believe it has great potential," said Lu, who left Toyota Motor Corp. to join LeEco's auto division in Beijing last month. "Startup EV companies usually can offer a higher salary than traditional automakers. You can get good rewards from stock holdings in such companies."

More than 200 Chinese companies -- with backers including Terry Gou, Ma Huateng, Jack Ma and Jia Yueting -- are developing 4,000 EV models and are unveiling prototypes at motor shows and home electronics expos.

Traditional automakers and a bevy of startups see opportunity in the government's commitment to boost yearly sales of EVs by a factor of 10 in the next decade.

China surpassed the U.S. last year to become the world's biggest market for EVs and plug-in hybrids. Domestic automakers sold 331,092 units in 2015, according to the state-backed China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

In a country with some of the worst urban air pollution on the planet, the government has set a sales target of 3 million units a year by 2025. China also is accelerating construction of charging stations to serve 5 million electric vehicles by 2020.

'Prying talents'
"Internet companies that want to make cars are prying talent from us, and other rival automakers are also trying to lure them away," said Wang Jun, vice president of Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. "It's not only bolstered human-resource costs but also changed people's expectations about their future."

The positions in top demand include designers, software developers and engineers focusing on systems architecture and creating "smart cities," said Shirley Xia, an auto-industry recruiter in Beijing for Aimsen & Co.

Recently, Xia and seven colleagues suspended all projects for 45 days to search for an engineer to design charging poles for EVs. Their client, an automotive parts supplier, wanted someone with at least three years of experience but settled for a candidate with half that much.

"For some positions that only emerged over the past couple of years, there aren't that many talents in the market," Xia said. "It's challenging for us to find candidates."

Salaries for key r&d workers have risen 30 percent this year, with some reaching 1 million yuan ($151,000), said Jennifer Feng, chief human resource expert at Shanghai-based 51job Inc. That's nearly 16 times the national average for urban Chinese, based on data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

DeLorean doors
Park Piao left Changan Automobile to run the r&d department for startup Zhiche Auto in Shanghai. Zhiche's CEO is Shen Haiyin, who formerly worked for Chinese e-commerce company

"I received quite a lot of offers from all kinds of companies before I decided to join Zhiche," said Piao, 38. "A startup company can be more focused on EV products and thus can achieve innovations more quickly."

Zhiche displayed a concept electric SUV before the Beijing auto show this year, complete with DeLorean-style doors that flip up. Zhiche plans to release the vehicle next year.

There's also strong demand for branding and marketing specialists to help make household names out of startups with sights on initial public offerings.

"Part of this EV startup bubble can be explained by hot money," said Jochen Siebert, managing director of JSC Automotive Consulting in Singapore. "It reminds me a bit of the 1990s, when almost everything with internet or e-commerce was supported by private equity, and the stocks went through the roof."

A lot of that money is being spent on recruiting for the corporate suite, with companies backed by some of Greater China's richest people hiring top executives from rivals and from Silicon Valley to help distinguish themselves.

Take Future Mobility Corp., an EV-maker backed by Gou's Foxconn Technology Group and Ma's Tencent Holdings. The company hired Daniel Kirchert, who was president of Dongfeng Infiniti Motor Co., and Carsten Breitfeld, project manager for BMW AG's i8 plug-in sports car. Then it lured more managers from BMW.

"It is such a huge opportunity and advantage to start from zero," Kirchert said. "Our company offers a really big platform for talented people to reach their goals without hitting the glass ceilings they would have hit at traditional automakers."

Tesla challengers
Internet entrepreneur William Li's NextEV Inc. hired Padmasree Warrior, Cisco Systems Inc.'s former technology chief, to lead its U.S. operations.

Jia's Faraday Future Inc., an EV startup planning a $1 billion factory in Nevada to challenge Elon Musk and his Tesla Motors Inc., recruited Porter Harris from Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Harris left Faraday earlier this year.

The presence of those high profiles usually attracts workers who can actually build cars. Only about a quarter of the 4,000-plus EVs and plug-in hybrids approved by the government are in production, according to a National Development and Reform Commission survey.

Ma's Alibaba Group Holding is partnering with SAIC Motor Corp. on an Internet-connected SUV called the Roewe RX5.

Yet public subsidies that can total 60 percent of an EV's sticker price are helping fuel a manufacturing boom. For the first half of this year, China produced 177,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids, more than double the same period a year ago, the manufacturers' association said.

"Talent is one of many things these EV startups need to get right," Robin Zhu, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Sanford Bernstein, wrote in an email. "It may even be the most important, given how early stage many are at this point, and particularly given the realities of fund raising (investors back the best people)."

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