Detroit automakers luring tech talent with these workplace perks

Meet one of Ford’s newest employees, Natasha. She spends much of the day dozing on her desk. When she’s awake, she’s socializing. And, when nature calls … forget the ladies room, Natasha heads for the lawn.

Natasha is not your typical Ford employee. She’s an 11-year-old Yorkshire terrier pooch.

She has been coming to work with her owner and 15-year-veteran Ford employee Jeannie Floer, 51, at least once a week since mid-September. That’s when Ford launched a pilot program allowing those who work at Ford Land, its real estate management arm, to bring their dogs to work.

“I was so happy when Ford offered it,” said Floer, who’s an occupancy planner at Ford Land. “It’s good for new people who might work 10-to- 12-hour days. They don’t have to worry about their dog.”

Whether it’s a dog at work, a daily happy hour at the office, student loan refinancing, pet insurance or onsite health care clinics, Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler are upping the perks to compete with tech companies for top talent.

The automakers are aware of the siren song Silicon Valley companies use to reel in the best tech talent. The automakers are in fierce competition to also capture that talent and retain it, even as GM and Ford are expected to cut thousands of hourly and salary jobs next year to save costs.

“We try to not stay in our little box,” said Gina Waggoner, Ford’s global director of corporate services. “We looked at what other companies are doing to attract and retain talent. We started our first pilot in Palo Alto; it was bring your dog to work. The tech companies are all doing that.”


Most automakers are about 10 years behind tech companies and advertising agencies in the benefits they offer, beyond pay, to draw in top talent, said Nikki Kallek, chief human resources officer at Crain Communications.

“The three automakers in Michigan are dealing with a legacy of the industrial age work environment,” said Kallek. That means factory lines with three shifts or office cubicles.

But in this information age, technology enables flexible hours and unconventional environments, therefore, “Workers have a completely different level of expectation from their managers and their companies,” said Kallek.

Many want an engaging environment to collaborate and to feel their role impacts the whole company. If they don’t feel respected, they might leave. At Crain’s, the average employee tenure has dropped to seven years, down from 10 years in 2008. The top reason cited in exit interviews is that the employees felt they were not recognized for their work, Kallek said.

So this past spring, Crain’s started encouraging managers to have weekly one-on-one meetings with team members to discuss individuals’ performance and development.

At the Consumer Technology Association, a trade organization that represents about 2,000 consumer technology companies in the United States, the average employee tenure is seven years. It has been offering some of the best non-salary benefits around:

— $200-a-month student loan repayment

— $25,000 mortgage down payment loan (forgiven after three years if the property is a primary residence within a five-mile radius of office).

— Telework once a week

— A gym with instructor-led boot camp and yoga four times a week

— Broadband reimbursement up to $500 a year

— Paternity leave (as well as maternity leave)

With the national unemployment rate at a low 3.7 percent, such perks arise out of vicious competition to win top talent, especially when hiring people who can engineer or write software for self-driving cars and electric vehicles, said David Turner, vice president of University Human Resources for Eastern Michigan University.

And, because workers aged 18 to 34 will change jobs an average of 10 times during their career, said Turner, it means an employer will also need to keep changing.

“Organizations will have to change their culture to keep meeting workers’ evolving needs to retain them,” said Turner. “You will need to restructure your pay and benefits continually.”


Ford is buying the old train station near Detroit’s hip Corktown neighborhood and it will invest $740 million to renovate it for use as the hub of a campus for advanced automotive technology.

To fill it with the right people, Ford started transforming its culture. In November 2017, it launched New Parent Days, said Kelly Szafranski, Ford’s manager of policies and programs in human resources.

The program gives extended paid time off to new parents. Birth mothers get up to 16 weeks off, up from 10 weeks previously. Fathers and parents who adopt get 8 weeks off, up from 2 weeks off previously.

“We’re competing against other automakers and technology companies,” said Szafranski. “We consider new parenting to be really key moments. We don’t want that time to be stressful. We want them to have time to bond and adjust to work-home life.”

Ford also started its New Parent Ramp Up early this year. The new parents get four weeks of full-time pay, but work part-time hours. Few companies offer such an incentive, said Szafranski, which is why Ford jumped on it.

“We can’t wait to see what our key competitors are doing,” said Szafranski. “We have to stay in front of it.”

In November, Ford also started Flexible Family Care. It gives full-time employees 80 hours of paid time off to use however they want to rather than just for sick leave or business reasons, said Szafranski.

“We think it is helping us attract and retain top talent,” said Szafranski. “It’s anecdotal right now, but people say it makes them proud to work here, so they’re telling their friends.”


Ford’s “bring your dog to work” is a 128-day pilot, said Waggoner. It has guidelines such as the dogs must be registered with the office manager, have proof of all vaccines, workmates must approve, and the employee must be with the dog all day or have a colleague who will watch the dog if the employee has a meeting. Ford has a designated outdoor area for the dogs too.

“There have not been any issues,” said Waggoner. “It’s all been positive feedback.”

The dogs tend to cause “casual collisions” between colleagues that leads to conversation and the exchange of ideas, said Waggoner, who has two dogs herself that she leaves home because she travels the Ford campus too much.

Another pilot program launched mid-September is a happy hour at the Ford Land building. Around 4 p.m. daily, Ford Land employees gather in a common area on the 11th floor to enjoy beer and wine. The idea is to bring workers together and foster brainstorming.

“People participate, not every day,” said Waggoner. “We haven’t had any problems. We ask that folks use good judgment. This is still a business environment, not a bar.”

Both the dog program and the happy hour are 128-day trials. By mid-January, Ford will decide whether it will expand them to other areas of the company, said Waggoner.


It might seem counterintuitive, but as GM is preparing to slash about 14,000 hourly and salary jobs, it’s also on a hiring spurt especially for those with skills in automated technology development and electric car engineering. In fact, every 26 minutes GM hires a full-time employee from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, said GM’s 2017 Sustainability Report.

GM has also spent three years and about $1 billion redesigning its offices in Detroit, Milford and Warren to attract and keep talent. The renovation is more than mere remodeling, said CEO Mary Barra.

“It’s about creating an environment for collaboration and giving people tools they need to work effectively,” Barra told Fortune in May.

The space in Warren is designed to echo Facebook offices with coffee tables that are made of old hoods from a ‘57 Chevy, stools that came from recycled tires, car doors that line the wall and act as booths for sitting spaces.

Beyond these things, in 2016, GM started offering a student debt refinancing program through online lender SoFi. It provides exclusive low-interest rates to GM employees. It also extends to employees’ family members.

Here are some other new initiatives at GM:

— TRACK: An early career development initiative for new hires.

— iHUB: A consultancy for employees that offers programs that large groups of designers, engineers and researchers actively participate in to solve problems, brainstorm ideas.

— Tuition assistance and a technical education program.

— Adoption assistance: Financial benefit for parents involved in adoption.

— An employee wellness/health initiative that includes exercise events, health screenings at work, an annual wellness check that delivers monetary benefits to a health care savings account.


Fiat Chrysler has not announced plans to slash jobs and it is actively hiring, said spokesman Michael Palese.

“We’re always looking for talent,” Palese said. “We strive for a diverse and inclusive workplace where everyone is fully engaged and respected; that’s really important to us.”

FCA offers perks that focus on workers’ physical and mental well-being. For example, it offers the 16,000 employees at its headquarters in Auburn Hills an onsite gym with free personal trainers and yoga classes, an in-house dry-cleaning pick-up and drop-off service, hair and nail salons, a pharmacy and retail health clinic, various shops and a summer farmer’s market.

“It’s more of that mind-body offering. People have a wide area of interest,” said Kathleen Neal, FCA’s director of integrated health care and disability. “In our health activity member satisfaction survey, (the gym) is a highly valued benefit.”

In July, FCA opened an 11,000-square-foot primary-care health clinic staffed with a paid physician, equipped with an X-ray machine, lab and physical therapy for the 5,000 employees and their immediate family members in Kokomo, Indiana. FCA has five plants in that area.

“It’s part of a growing trend of employers who are building these clinics to make sure their employees are getting the best care,” Neal said. “We believe it’s something we should be doing in other areas of the country where we have a large number of employees.”

FCA expects the clinic will deliver “strong” savings in health-care costs, Neal said.

“This is something that will improve the health of your employees and by improving their health, the cost savings will follow,” Neal said.

And in case you thought Ford was the only one to care about pets, FCA was one of the first employers in the nation to offer employees pet health insurance starting in the 1980s, Neal said. FCA gets the pet insurance at a group discounted rate so that people could save some money with a veterinarian.

“Pets have become a member of our family and because we love our pets we’ll do quite a bit for their health,” said Neal. “The fact that we’re that focused on the health and welfare of our employees — it’s part of a portfolio of things we do — this sends a message that this employer is concerned about me and cares about my family.”

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