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After Downturn, A Brighter Future for Automotive Engineers

After Downturn, A Brighter Future for Automotive Engineers

For automotive engineers, a better future is coming, experts say.

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.

The good news is that engineers who do all that will likely find themselves employed.

"The big 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 automotive industry.

"People who 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, ‘To heck with engineering.'"

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 them.

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 or Japan, 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 already beginning.

Still, recovering 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."

Experts say 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.

"It's not 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."

Ironically, 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.

"A few 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 ever before.

"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 contemporary."

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