For automotive engineers, a better future is coming, experts
But as the
technical community struggles back to its feet after the economic collapse of
the past year, it's going to need to be willing to adapt. In the next few
years, automotive engineers will have to work in global collaborative
environments. They'll need to favor virtual tools over physical prototypes. And
they'll have to learn about embedded systems, control software and electronics.
news is that engineers who do all that will likely find themselves employed.
picture for the next few years looks pretty good," notes David Cole, chairman
of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR). "Everybody has been cutting to the
bone and into the bone. What we will undoubtedly do as we come out of
this is we will realize that we've overcut. We always do this. Then we go out
on a hiring spree."
Help for the shell-shocked
Until that hiring spree arrives, however, many engineers
will change industries. They'll move from state to state. They'll leave the
have been laid off are depressed and shell-shocked and haven't gotten over the
sense of being victims," says Rob Kleinbaum, managing director for RAK &
Co., a general management and operational consulting company with more than two
decades of automotive experience. "Some people are even going to say, âTo heck
As bad as
the economy looks right now, though, experts foresee a number of reasons why an
engineering comeback is imminent. The biggest, they say, is the baby boom. As boomers
retire, positions will open up. A CAR study called "Beyond The Big Leave"
contends that in the next four to five years, the American economy will be
short about ten million skilled workers, many of whom will be engineers. Over
12-15 years, that figure will balloon to about 30 million. At the same time,
more than 13 million vehicles are being scrapped each year, while U.S.
capacity is being reduced annually by four million units. Those figures,
experts say, add up to a need for vehicles, as well as the engineers who design
In the long
term, births and national fertility rates also appear to bode well for American
engineers. The U.S. has far
higher birth rates than Germany
the two other 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. Over the next 20-30 years, Japan's
population is actually expected to decline by about 60 million. For engineers,
the bottom line is simple: Foreign automakers will put manufacturing facilities
in the U.S.,
as close as possible to educated workforces. Cole says that the change is
automakers will have new criteria when they return. "With a turn in the market,
the outlook will be good," Cole says. "But in terms of skills, everything will
be different. The global competitive environment is shifting."
that engineers who understand embedded software, math modeling, and electronic
controls will be in demand. Moreover, the new breed of engineers will have to
be ready to work with foreign automakers and suppliers. They'll have to deal
with counterparts abroad, which will nearly eliminate time-honored methods of
physical prototyping, thus thrusting them more deeply into virtual design.
as if an engineer in this country will only design U.S. products," Cole says. "They'll
be engineering products from all over the world. They'll need to work in global
collaborative environments, be strong in their engineering fundamentals, and be
proficient in all manner of modeling and simulation."
the most valuable degree might be one in mechanical engineering. Mechanical
engineering degrees, however, will need to be augmented with experience or
education in software or embedded controls.
years ago, electrical engineering was the hottest degree," Cole says. "But
electronics ultimately need to be integrated into a product, so you need an
engineer with a systems point of view."
For individuals who remain in
automotive engineering, the good news is that corporate cultures in American
companies are likely to change. Consultants say that for those companies to
emerge stronger, their cultures will need to emphasize engineering more than
"Japanese car companies have real
engineering cultures," Kleinbaum says. "Their engineers feel they have a route
to the top. But in domestic companies, engineers know that the route to the top
is through finance, marketing and general management."
Kleinbaum argues that for American
automakers to stay in business, they'll need to provide a track for ambitious,
committed engineers. "They need to be engineering-focused and product-focused,"
he says. "In a healthy automotive culture, you would have far more engineers
sitting on the management committee than finance people."
To be sure, the outlook is likely
to be cloudier for older engineers. Engineers whose expertise lies in purely
mechanical systems and physical prototyping are more likely to struggle. Whether
such engineers can find work in the revamped auto industry will depend on their
willingness to educate themselves and work in global environments.
"There's not going to be a neatly
packaged answer that applies to all engineers," Cole says. "But there's
opportunity out there for people with skills, as long as those skills are