Ford has invested millions in startups to recruit talent -- and it has no plans of slowing down

Ford is changing its recruiting approach to acquire more talent specializing in artificial intelligence at a time where the talent pool is growing thin.

In February, Ford invested $US1 billion in Argo AI, a secretive AI startup founded by former Google and Uber execs. It’s a heavy investment for a startup that has operated under the radar, but it speaks to a larger effort by Ford to acquire talent that traditionally flocks to Silicon Valley.

“As we’ve shifted from being an automotive company to being automotive and mobility, we’ve seen an increasing need for tech talent,” Julie Lodge-Jarrett, Ford’s human resources director, told Business Insider. “So in places like machine learning or AI or robotics… we see a greater need for ourselves at Ford and also a more competitive market for that particular talent.”

Typically, Ford acquires talent the same way most companies do: attending job fairs at universities. Lodge-Jarrett said Ford has partnerships with major universities like MIT, Stanford, and the University of Michigan that helps the automaker onboard new talent.

But Ford, like other automakers, has had to adjust its strategy as it looks to bring on more people with a background in artificial intelligence to aid its self-driving-car efforts. This is more difficult than meets the eye, as Ford is not only competing with other car companies, but also traditional tech companies.

Ford plans to continue making investments in startups like Argo AI as a way to acquire talent in bulk, Lodge-Jarett said.

“We look at how we traditionally buy talent and how we might buy it in greater quantities based on other companies or other resources,” she said.

Ford doesn’t necessarily have to acquire companies for that strategy to work, Lodge-Jarett added. Ford owns a majority stake in Argo AI, but the company has the freedom to licence its technology in the future and it is structured to operate like a startup.

Similarly, Ford invested over $US180 million in software company Pivotal to gain access to new talent in May 2016. Ford also invested $US150 million in Velodyne, a manufacturer of lidar systems, in August 2016. Lidar is a sensor that shoots lasers so self-driving cars can detect obstacles.

The automaker is also taking other tactics to keep up with the growing demand for AI expertise. Ford now conducts interviews on campuses and then offers jobs that same day to make sure it doesn’t lose prospective hires.

Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford, said at SXSW that Ford will continue to make investments in startups dedicated to reducing congestion, similar to shuttle-van startup Chariot, which the automaker bought for more than $US65 million last September.

He said Ford will also look to invest in startups working on the software to support self-driving cars, particularly software systems related to fleet management, payment, and statistics.

“[We] are starting to have deep conversations around what are the business models,” he said.

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