If you saw the recent news about General Motors' salaried headcount reductions, you can hardly be blamed for wondering about the future of automotive engineering in this country. It's hard to watch the struggles of GM, Ford and Chrysler and not question whether there will be any engineering jobs left in a few years.
For those who have been worrying, though, the news isn't nearly as bad as it may seem. Yes, some automotive engineers — particularly those with more “traditional” engineering skill sets — are losing their jobs. The silver lining, though, is that engineers who are adept with software, math modeling and embedded controls will actually be in demand — even in Detroit.
Before we discuss why, however, let's first look at the situation that has engineers worrying. In July, GM announced it will embark on a series of corporate changes that will have a $15 billion impact on its bottom line. Among those changes will be a sweeping program of salaried headcount reductions. The giant automaker said it would achieve the headcount reductions through normal attrition, early retirements and “mutual separation programs.” It was enough to send a collective chill through the offices of the extended auto industry, especially among first- and second-tier suppliers who depend on Detroit for their businesses.
As we said, though, it's not as bad as it first seems. Why? Because of birth and fertility rates. The U.S., it seems, has far higher birth rates than Germany or Japan, the other two countries that produce the majority of the world's cars. In 2008, for example, the U.S. birth rate was 14.0 per 1,000 people, while Japan had 8.3 and Germany had 8.2. There's also a difference in fertility rates: The U.S. has approximately 2.10 births per woman, while Germany has 1.41 and Japan has 1.22.
That's meaningful, especially when we look at where future engineers will come from. “Japan, because they don't have a lot of immigration, will lose about 60 million people over the next 20-30 years,” says David Cole, director of The Center for Automotive Research. “Germany and Japan will be putting facilities here because the human resources are here.”
For automotive engineers, it means jobs will still be available, maybe even plentiful. The key, however, is training. “If you're an engineer whose expertise is building physical prototypes, then the outlook may not be so good,” Cole says. “But if you're in the forefront of working with math models, then you're in a pretty good spot. There's also going to be huge demand for people who are capable in software and controls. Right now, GM is hiring like crazy in the embedded software area.”
The bottom line, Cole says, is that the employment outlook isn't bad for up-and-coming automotive engineers. “If you're a new engineer who's at the forefront of technology,” he says, “then you're still in a good position.”