Careers in Engineering
Did you grow up dreaming of cars? Have you ever fixed an engine or wondered what it would be like to design your own? Automotive engineers are the professionals who get to turn their car dreams into reality, whether designing a new model or finding better ways to manufacture a part. For car enthusiasts, automotive design can be one of the most exciting careers in engineering.
There are many careers within automotive engineering. These include automotive design, which is primarily concerned with the car’s look, exteriors, interiors and aerodynamics. Designers work in teams to conceive and model the next year’s line of automobiles. A love of drawing and modeling is a must, as well as a strong team ethic. Computer modeling skills are important as well — much of the work of designing a car is now done on computer-aided design software.
Automotive manufacturing engineers oversee production of these cars. They work to streamline factory operations and eliminate errors. They troubleshoot technical problems that may arise during assembly. Responsibility for putting together the thirty-thousand-or-so individual parts that go into a car is no easy task; this job requires someone who can handle stress.
Surprisingly, many automotive engineers do not work for car companies at all. Instead, careers in engineering automotive design and manufacturing work to design and build the car’s component parts. Laine Mears, a professional engineer and professor of automotive engineering at Clemson University (www.clemson.edu) says that, “every new job at a car company creates ten additional jobs in the supplier industry.” It is also worth noting that while the automotive industry is historically based in Michigan, many of the new jobs in the field are spread across the country and around the world.
All automotive engineers require at least a bachelor’s degree to be competitive in this market. Chih Ping Yeh, professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University (www.wayne.edu) and director of its new electric-drive vehicle engineering program, insists that a degree is necessary for all careers in the industry. He adds that with growth in green automotive technology, specialty training in hybrid and electric cars is especially valuable.
According to Mears, a good knowledge of computer programming is also important; it is “one of those things you have to learn sooner or later.” New cars are comprised of increasing numbers of computers. Mears points out that “the newest model of BMW has a computer attached to its shock absorber…it’s only going to get more intense.”
A master’s degree may not be required to enter the industry, but can fuel a rapid rise in the ranks. There are many ways to attain a master’s degree while still working. Mears mentions he worked full-time as an engineer while completing his master’s through a distance learning course from Georgia Tech.
Finally, hands-on experience and problem solving skills will make you competitive for any and all jobs in the industry. Mears bristles when he mentions that he has had certain students come to him with a wrench and hadn’t seen it before. Make sure you know how a car really works before you enter any program.
Typical day-careers in engineering automotive design and manufacturing
There is no typical day in automotive design. The work is often project-based and can vary in intensity from deadline to deadline. The project could involve long hours well into the evening one day and very little effort the next. Automotive manufacturing is no more structured. According to Mears, a car company may ask a supplier for a part only eight hours ahead of time. This is called “just-in-time engineering” and “requires a lot of sequencing and a lot of communication,” says Mears.
Salary and job outlook
The job outlook for careers in engineering automotive and design is very good. Professor Mears says that many of the jobs that once moved overseas are returning to the U.S., driven back by high transportation costs as well as the rising cost of doing business in Asia. He is also very positive about the growth of green jobs in the industry. He says that demand in Detroit is high for those workers with knowledge of hybrid technology. “They really need people. They cannot wait for these students to graduate.”
The automotive industry is still recovering from a very difficult recession. Job growth in the field of mechanical engineering will still be “slower than average” at nine percent, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average salary is about $95,080, according to the most recent numbers from the USBLS.
Mears says that any career in engineering automotive or design requires one basic part: passion for the work. In his words, “If you wake up in the morning excited to go to work, you will be the most successful engineer in the world.” To make it through the training takes hard work, but for those passionate about the industry, it can be a dream come true.
Jonathan Peters is a freelance journalist based in Poughkeepsie, New York.