SAE World Congress: Not Enough Automotive Engineers to Go Around

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
sae world congress not enough automotive engineers to go around

The Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress held in Detroit every April serves a number of functions for the automotive engineers’ professional association.

There are speeches (lately, it seems, more by Washington bureaucrats than by real, you know, engineers), technical panels, papers presented, standards suggested, and the big floor of Cobo Hall is pretty much turned into a trade show with booths from car companies, vendors, startups, and regional & international economic development delegations. If you want swag you can sell on eBay, go to a big auto show media preview (though things have changed and thumb drives aren’t quite as collectible today as diecast models once were). However, if you want free pens and the kind of swag that appeals to nerds like the cool little screwdriver set that Magna Powertrain gave out, go to the SAE convention. Also, if you’re an engineer looking for a job, or,a company looking to hire automotive engineers, you need to attend.

Last year, the concourse at Cobo was two-thirds filled with recruiting booths with companies looking to increase technical staffing that had been cut deep into the bone during the meltdown of the domestic auto industry in 2007-2009. The 2011 SAE World Congress saw a hiring frenzy. This year, the concourse was completely filled with recruiting booths. SAE international president Frank Klegon told me that there were significantly more companies at the recruiting fair this year than last. There wasn’t so much of a hiring frenzy this year, though. A recruiting frenzy, yes, but just about every company that I spoke to said that they were struggling to meet their quotas. In addition to the recruiting fair, there were also kiosks with job postings and the engineers in attendance seemed far more interested in the booths on the show floor than in the job postings. Most of the companies in the recruiting fair were also represented on the show floor, trying to sell something, but some came to the World Congress just to hire engineers

It’s sometimes difficult getting people to recognize just how international the automotive community in southeastern Michigan has become. Yes there were delegations from Korean, Canadian, Mexican, Italian and other foreign companies and trade groups in the vendor displays inside Cobo Hall, but a walk through the SAE job fair in the building’s lobby shows just how many international companies have located engineering and production facilities in America’s industrial heartland. Almost all of the companies recruiting have offices or operations in Michigan or nearby states and they were hiring for those facilities. In the vendor displays, Tata Technologies showed off their eMO EV concept, designed and built in the Indian company’s facility not far from Detroit.

Not all the recruiting was for American operations. In the lobby, Tata’s parent company was again trying to recruit engineers for their corporate R&D center in Maharashtra state, India. Next door to the Tata recruiter was a table for Saudi Aramco. With companies telling me that they were having trouble finding enough automotive engineers to staff their operations in Auburn Hills or Plymouth, Michigan, I don’t envy the folks trying to place engineers in Pune and Jeddah.

The story was the same at small firms looking to hire a relative handful of engineers and those looking to fill 200 or more positions. They were getting interest from qualified applicants, but not enough to meet their needs. One problem facing recruiters is that during the carpocalypse of 2007-2009, many engineers permanently left the automotive industry, tired of its constant boom and bust cycles. Some will never return to working in automotive, but for others, like the Jatco rep demonstrating one of the CVTs they supply to their parent, Nissan, there was a reason why they worked in the automotive sector in the first place. I’m not sure if the metaphor fits in an era of Lithium-Ion batteries, but some people are just born with gasoline in their veins. Unfortunately for recruiters in the industry, right now there aren’t enough of them to go around.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks – RJS

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  • Msquare Msquare on May 01, 2012

    I'm from Long Island, where anyone with an engineering inclination was expected to graduate and spend the rest of their career at Grumman, Sperry, Fairchild-Republic, or one of the smaller companies supporting them. Then the Berlin Wall fell and there weren't any fallback industries for anybody. Grumman tried diversification in the 1970's, but retreated back into their government-contract-to-government-contract comfort zone. That worked brilliantly. So the net result was late-1980's and early-1990's grads working in auto parts stores. And those who got related jobs were paid on the cheap. What kind of advice do you think their kids are getting? I'm a shade-tree mechanic from childhood, have a physics degree, worked eight years as a test engineer for a filter company and now work in new media. I'd love to get my hands dirty helping design cars, but no one would give me a second look because first, I'm too old and second, I've never worked in the business, at least officially. Wonder how many people like me (like most of the people here, even) have been overlooked over the years.

  • Kyree Kyree on May 01, 2012

    Being that I am currently working on my Mechanical Engineering degree, with plans to go into the automotive field, this is music to my ears. Let's hope automotive engineers remain at a relative premium when I graduate a few years from now : P

    • Redmondjp Redmondjp on May 02, 2012

      Here is some advice as a result of 25 years of experience as an engineer: Keep your skills current. Take advantage of all of the company-provided training opportunities that you can (and be proactive, don't sit back just expecting it to happen). It is critical that you maintain relevant, current job skills, if not for your existing job, then for your next one. You don't want to end up being "the landing gear bolt guy" (local Boeing joke) that is so specialized that you can't find another job within the company, much less at another company. WHO you know will be far more important in your career than what you know (they DO NOT teach this in college, sadly). Keep in touch with your classmates and professors. Get on LinkedIn and keep your profile current. Make meaningful connections. Get involved in professional organizations (SAE, etc). Your next job could very well come from or through somebody you know or knew. Don't burn any bridges if and when you do leave a job. Use your vendor and business partner connections to your advantage - oftentimes, vendors that call on multiple businesses know about job opportunities at those other places and you can discreetly inquire (OFF of the premises, a lunch works well). Look out for yourself. Nobody else will. If you're really fortunate, you might have a supervisor that actually cares about your career but don't count on it. Read the book "Who Moved My Cheeze" and understand it. You need to be able to recognize when your cheeze moves; it most certainly will in today's turbulent job climate which has been the case for the past 25 years or so. I remember reading business articles about "Managing Change" way back in the 1980s and didn't realize then how significantly the paradigm was changing, with lifetime employment at a single company, mentoring, pensions, and so on, on the way out. I was looking forward to that kind of environment, and saw it vanish completely since I have graduated from college. Never could I have imagined back in 1986 while working at Delco Electronics in Kokomo, IN (with around 20K employees at our location including hundreds of engineers) that someday it would all be gone, with just over 1K employees left there and all of the manufacturing moved offshore. The cheeze moved half-way around the world and I didn't follow it (I found some different cheeze closer to home instead). Good luck with your studies; my hardest semester was my last one during which I completed my senior design project, and it was also the semester in which I was signed up for the fewest credits!

  • Chuck Norton And guys are having wide spread issues with the 10 speed transmission with the HP numbers out of the factory......
  • Zerofoo "Hyundais just got better and better during the 1990s, though, and memories of those shoddy Excels faded."Never. A friend had an early 90s Hyundai Excel as his college beater. One day he decided that the last tank of gas he bought was worth more than the car. He drove it to empty and then he and his fraternity brothers pushed it into the woods and left it there.
  • Kwik_Shift There are no new Renegades for sale within my geographic circle of up to 85 kms. Looks like the artificial shortage game. They bring one in, 10 buyers line up for it, $10,000 over MSRP. Yeah. Like with a lot of new cars.
  • Ribbedroof In Oklahoma, no less!
  • Ribbedroof Have one in the shop for minor front collision repairs right now,I've seen more of these in the comments than in the 30 years I've been in collision repair.