As the Auto Industry Rebounds, a New Breed of Engineers Is Needed


As the U.S. auto market returned to pre-crisis levels last month, automakers face a new challenge: hiring more talent, particularly engineers with electronics and digital skills.

The auto industry continues to rebound from one of the deepest downturns in decades. Last month, U.S. light-vehicle sales rose 14 percent, driven by double-digit gains at six of the seven biggest automakers. July’s annualized sales rate was the second highest since late 2007, behind only June.

As vehicle sales have bounced back, so has production. Automakers are expected to produce more than 16 million light vehicles in North America this year, the region’s highest output in more than a decade. With exports to growing markets elsewhere in the world poised to surge, production records are expected through at least 2020.



This demand boom means both automakers and suppliers are seeking the talent necessary to keep pace in their operations.

In its third-quarter U.S. vehicle production and employment outlook, the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) forecasts industry employment to rise from 647,500 in 2012 to 670,000 in 2013 and 700,000 by 2015. CAR forecasts 52,500 manufacturing jobs will be added to the U.S. auto industry by 2015.

In a study at the start of 2013, CAR estimated that the auto industry overall would add 90,000 employees by 2016, of which about one-third will be in motor vehicle manufacturing and two-thirds will be in the automotive supplier sector. Currently, the ratio of supplier employment to automaker employment is about three to one.

As vehicle sales surge, hundreds of companies that supply parts to automakers must also expand to keep up with demand. Approximately 69 percent of suppliers plan to increase their salaried employment through the end of the year, while another 81 percent plan to increase their hourly employment, according to the latest Original Equipment Suppliers Association’s Supplier Sentiment Index.

Today, hiring plans among automakers appear relatively widespread. Less than five years after General Motors (GM) and Chrysler were pushed to bankruptcy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the massive industry restructuring that included significant job cuts, Chrysler, Honda, GM, Mercedes-Benz, and Ford plan to add more than 13,000 people this year.

In July, Ford announced its intent to hire 3,000 salaried employees this year, with upwards of 90 percent to be based in Michigan. Ford’s salaried hiring initiative is the largest since 2000 and, according to the company, necessary to meet surging demand. Last year, Ford hired 1,850 salaried workers in the U.S.

Of Ford’s expected new hires in 2013, 80 percent will be technical professionals who will work in product development, manufacturing, quality, purchasing, and information technology (IT).

Wanted: Engineers with Electronic and Software Skills

Engineers and technical professionals are in as much demand today as automakers’ vehicles. In the auto industry, engineering is among the most in-demand occupations, with the most sought-after job titles being manufacturing engineer and quality engineer, according to Wanted Analytics. The most commonly required skills by auto manufacturers are product design, Six Sigma/lean manufacturing, and software development.

Andrew Smart, the director of society programs and industry relations for SAE International, says that based on announcements from OEMs and suppliers in Southeast Michigan, upwards of 8,000 technical positions need to be filled.

At a time when software is playing a much more prominent role in vehicles, the greatest need is for engineers with electronics and digital skills. This underscores the fact that cars are becoming more technologically advanced – from the electronic components in safety systems to entertainment systems.

“The automotive industry in 2013 is definitely not [about developing] your grandfather’s Buick,” Smart told IMT Career Journal. “It is a very high-tech industry – from design to manufacture – where current vehicles have 30,000 individual parts being developed on a global basis and have electronic systems with approximately 100 million lines of code, compared to the space shuttle, which has approximately 500,000.”

Developments in high-tech electronic controls, safety systems, and even infotainment systems are creating demand for this new breed of engineer.

Smart says chief among the industry professionals needed now and in the future are skilled electromechanical engineers, who use their combined knowledge and technical proficiency of both mechanical and electrical engineering to solve multidisciplinary problems that involve system-level analysis, modeling, and design.

“With the increase in electronic content, the historic need for mechanical engineers is changing to a need for electromechanical engineers,” according to Smart. “A more holistic view is being taken to the vehicle. Due to the multiple interactions and integration of multiple systems, systems engineering is a key requirement.”

While automakers are looking to add engineers and technical professionals to their headcount, they are also seeking specific and strategic hires. To help meet government regulations and satisfy consumer demands, automakers are seeking highly skilled engineers who excel at working on vehicles with the right mix of technologies, including electric motors, batteries, and computing systems.

“Within the automotive community, one of the key focus areas is the 2025 CAFE standard of 54.5 mpg,” Smart said. “With so many technologies in play, the challenge is predicting the right mix of technologies that will be accepted by the consumer that will fulfill the regulation.”

This concern reflects how the skill set needed to engineer and deploy today’s automotive technology has evolved. As Felicia Fields, group vice president of human resources for Ford, puts it: “It’s not just talent. It’s the right talent.”

For engineers looking to land one of the more than 8,500 jobs advertised online in the U.S. automotive and automotive parts manufacturing industries last month, credentials and training remain a key, “especially in the new technology areas that are not currently covered by university curriculum,” Smart says.

As a specific example, Smart cites the Vehicle Electrification Credentialing Program that SAE International has developed. The personnel certification program enables engineers, product development technicians, and other associated personnel to earn a certificate of competency or certification in the area of vehicle electrification. SAE International’s intent is that these credentials will help individuals elevate their stature within their organizations and offer them increased employment portability.

Automakers to Face Difficulties Recruiting High-Tech Engineers

As cars become increasingly software driven, automakers have embarked on an ambitious effort to reposition themselves as employers for engineers with electronic, software, and computer network skills.

As the need for engineering and technical professionals rises, auto manufacturers are likely to experience difficulty in recruiting for open jobs. For example, while Ford is halfway to its goal of hiring its 3,000 salaried employees this year, the endeavor isn’t easy.

They now must compete with companies in every other high-tech industry to secure talent with software, electronic, and computer network skills. Will automakers be able to lure potential talent away from Silicon Valley and toward a career in Detroit?

According to Wanted Analytics’ Hiring Scale, which scores jobs from 1-99 based on the projected difficulty to recruit, auto jobs currently stand at 56 on average in the U.S. This means that recruiters and employers at auto manufacturers are likely to experience “moderate difficulties” when sourcing potential candidates for open positions.



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