By on May 1, 2012

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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35 Comments on “SAE World Congress: Not Enough Automotive Engineers to Go Around...”

  • avatar

    As a mechanical engineer living in western PA, I’ve found that the recent recession did not have much effect on technical hiring (in this area, anyway). Engineers are hard to find around here, which is a nice change from when I graduated from college in the late 80s.

    Besides, two other factors are at play:
    1. Fear of losing your job (despite a good market) during these weird economic times tends to limit job circulation.
    2. Anyone familiar with Carmageddon is loathe to hire on to a car company. I just don’t trust them, or the market.

  • avatar

    Cry me a river. If you’re a car guy and an engineer stay out of the industry,it’ll crush your soul.
    I tried it twice, and I can’t say I’d never go back but my children would have to be starving or something like that.

  • avatar

    Engineering, as a profession, is dying in this country. An absolute top-flite near genius level engineer at the top of his or her game MIGHT make as much money as a nosepicking buisness major with bargain basement JD three years out of school. There are engineers out there who are regularly are seen on magazine covers that make less than garden variety patent trolls. Why bother going into engineering when you can take your (real) education from college and make big coin in the finance/patent/law sectors? “you know what a derivative is? wow!!”

    • 0 avatar

      I’m no engineer, but this seems to be the case (and not limited to just engineers) years of school and crushing debt for a modestly paying job.

      Then there is the spectre of out-sourcing, engineering students from abroad lacking the crushing education debt (relatively speaking) can take on a modestly paying job in the US and still live a decent life.

      An off-hand observation though, it seems funny that the guys who control the money (finance/law) seem to be immune to the rules of capitalism – alot of people flock to these sectors, there is a glut of them, yet you dont see thier wages going down due to competition.

      • 0 avatar

        JD is a law degree in the States, correct?

        With finance it’s certainly true, but there are too many lawyers in the states – I’m sure some still make mad money, but so many places can crank out law degrees, it is only the top tier school grads making decent money (and that in the context of huge debt, assuming your parents just didn’t underwrite the whole thing, which at those schools is the rule rather than the exception.)

        Fortunately this is not true in Canada, Law is still a decent profession round these parts.

    • 0 avatar

      You don’t think theres a JD/MBA bubble?

      • 0 avatar

        The JD/MBA gravy train has long passed. A street-and-business-smart friend of mine had his JD paid for by his employer (so no hurry to pay off student loan debt and can be picky about job prospects), 4.0 GPA at a respectable Tier 2 school, clerking for the district court during the summer, and still had to move to some small firm in Texas for a patent troll job after job hunting for over a year.

    • 0 avatar

      It was quite a shock to realize how little value my mechanical engineering degree with honors and a quality twenty months of industrial internship experience had. I even got one of the rare “good” jobs but the guys handing out batteries at the stores section of the power plant I worked at during my first and last real post-grad engineering job were making more than me. Most of my engineering buddies are working in the oilfield now, not using their degree at all but rather their ability to responsibly suffer a horrible lifestyle for huge payment. I did it for a while too, but eventually concluded that it wasn’t a life worth living.

      I wouldn’t recommend engineering to anyone. For someone who can breeze through high school maths and sciences and wants to apply that skill, I’d recommend a technical degree in “power engineering”. A much easier, shorter course with better, higher paying jobs available. You also get to work directly with equipment rather than primarily dealing with the administration of projects.

      • 0 avatar

        I have an Electrical Engineering degree, a Mechanical Engineering degree, and have made out very very well. Most engineers I went to college did very well.

        Problem is the auto industry. They overpay UAW folks. This leaves little money for engineering. So, no money. Result … better engineers go to other industries that pay much more than Detroit. Detroit gets stuck with low GPAers from second class schools. And, America gets second class vehicles from Detroit automakers.

      • 0 avatar

        Engineers do seem to have more value in the U.S. When I was doing some oilfield work down there, more than one co-worker expressed surprise that I was doing such a job while having an engineering degree. A good entry-level engineering job pays $50k here, while that oilfield job pays close to $100k in the states but double that in Canada. I didn’t say much except that typical engineering jobs don’t pay well in Canada because their large company had bought ours and I didn’t want them to know about the pay discrepancy between our countries in that specific field.

        I’m glad you enjoy your work. Where I come from, it seems rare that an engineer can say that!

  • avatar

    Every time I hear about an “engineer shortage” I cringe. I’m in IT, and I’ve heard cries of “software/hardware/systems/network engineer shortage” before. This boy has cried wolf too many times.

    These claims usually come from mahogany row. They are right – there is a shortage of skilled engineers willing to work 80 hours a week for $35k a year. After spending years learning calculus, differential equations, physics, chemistry, algorithms, materials science, and then cutting your teeth in the field, the last thing you want is to be worked to death for a pittance.

    These shortage claims are for one purpose only – to reduce the cost of engineers to the point where they are a disposable commodity.

    This won’t work for two reasons:

    1. Engineering is hard – there are no “feel good” or “mostly right” answers in Engineering. You have to love this stuff to succeed.

    2. Wall St. wants engineers as well. Engineering talent is not only needed in manufacturing and software, finance is competing for these people as well – and Wall St. pays VERY well.

    The bottom line is if you want the Engineering talent, you need to open your wallet.

    • 0 avatar

      This * 1000.

      If these companies are seeing a shortage, I think they should do a test: offer a single position with a starting salary of 3x normal, ppo benefits 90% paid by the company, matching 401k up to 10% of salary & 1 month of paid vacation.

      I guarantee you the shortage will end.

      Coming out of school in the early 90’s, I was happy to work at an ISP doing provisioning of isdn lines, T1’s, Free/OpenBSD Network Administration, etc @ $45k or so working 8am-6pm, lunch at desk, 6 days a week as well as being on call.

      Now it’s almost 20 years later and I don’t know if I’d do that for any amount of money now that I have a wife & son…

      I think this tactic is not used because there is an actual shortage of engineers, but an actual shortage of engineers at a pay-rate that nobody can afford to take.

      Companies need to realize a LOT of people who are GOOD engineers are older & experienced. OLDER people have families & mortgages. Many mortgages in this country are upside down. It solves nothing to have a job that doesn’t even come close to paying the mortgage.

      Ok so you don’t want an older engineer, you want a cheaper/younger one without family who can work those hours? That person probably still has a ton of school debt they need to pay off as well as possibly car debt to get to/from work. In my experience, I’ve seen more younger people with crazy credit card debt as well.

      In any case, the fact stands – if you want smart people, PAY UP. You really do get what you pay for in most cases…..

    • 0 avatar

      “These shortage claims are for one purpose only – to reduce the cost of engineers to the point where they are a disposable commodity.”

      If your goal is to drive the cost of something down, how is that goal furthered by publicly complaining about it being in short supply? Shortages drive prices up, not down.

      I suppose it’s possible that the plan is to drive more people into a given profession long-term so that there will be more engineers in, say, ten years. That seems like a shaky and indirect tactic; I doubt any employers are actively using it.

      From my perspective as an engineer outside the auto industry, it’s a good time to be an engineer. Salaries are good, and interesting opportunities abound in places that I want to live.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s to lobby Congress for more H1B visas to bring in foreign engineers. Sure, the law says they have to be paid at prevailing local wages and can be hired only when no locals can be found to do the job, but that’s pretty easy to circumvent.

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly. There is no real engineer shortage. Also, the myth that “the baby boomer engineers are going to retire and there will be mass vacancies” is hogwash. The baby boomers will NEVER retire; their jobs are who they are and besides – a lot of them got wiped out in the dotcom crash and housing crash. They’ll die at their desks. I’ve been working in aerospace since the mid 90s and nobody quits and almost nobody gets hired, but plenty get downsized. Total quagmire.

      • 0 avatar

        The boomers may be hanging around in aerospace, but in automotive they’re fading fast. I’m 63, a big three alumnus, and 80% plus of my contemporaries are retired. There were a LOT of positive and negative incentives in 08 and 09 to head for the exits.

    • 0 avatar

      I think repeating the “there aren’t enough engineers…” simply leads to “We need congress to grant us more foreign work visas that we can pay a pittance….”

      • 0 avatar


      • 0 avatar
        Athos Nobile

        Down here there’s a real shortage of engineers.

        And from what I’ve heard, there’s a shortage in Europe too, specially in the auto industry.

      • 0 avatar

        I think the days of “hire a bunch of H1B tech workers for peanuts” are long gone, if they ever really existed in the first place.

        There are a few reasons for this:
        (1) Skilled foreign engineers can now make good money in their home country, and are therefore much less interested in moving halfway around the world to work in what amounts to a below-market-rate temp job.
        (2) Smart companies have figured out that it simply throwing a bunch of comparatively low-skilled low-cost foreign “engineers” at a project doesn’t actually work very well. And because of (1) that’s who you’re going to get if you’re only interested in paying a pittance.
        (3) If you do need a bunch of low-skill grunts to do simple technical tasks, why go through the trouble of bringing them to the US at all? It’s now pretty easy to share designs and data globally, so it’s far more efficient to outsource to foreign-located firms rather than import planeloads of tech labor.

        We just hired an H1B engineer whre I work, because we legitimately could not find any US applicants with the required skills and background. He’s making approximately 100K in an area where the average income is a third of that. Is that what you consider to be a pittance?

      • 0 avatar

        (1) They may make good money now in their home country, and have many more opportunities. But they still aspire to moving to the West. And if they don’t aspire to a Western lifestyle themselves, they’ll do it for their kids. It’s not unusual for upper middle class Chinese families to uproot at great expense and move to some tinpot South American country (like Paraguay, for example) for a few years waiting for a shortcut to the American immigration lines. Though this will change down the line as we reach parity in living standards with China and India.

        (2) With all the inefficiencies and overhead associated with this, you’re still going to net at least 5%-10% savings. While not exciting, it’s certainly substantial in many industries. Remember that the way the H1B visa is structured, the employer has essentially eliminated the cost of a turnover for the duration of the visa (one of the largest expenses of white-collar labor), as the visa employee is for all practical purposes bound to this employer.

        (3) This is true. But a lot of times, they’re bringing one guy over for a few months or a year to learn the ropes, then going back to train the overseas group. And even if this is not the case, there are just way too much stuff that is much easier done in person and there are still plenty of management who hold the archaic belief that work is not done unless the employee is seen working onsite 8 hours a day.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t forget that both engineers and jobs can be highly specialized.

      So, if you insist on hiring ONLY someone with experience in some sort of hyper-specialized niche of your industry, it’s going to be hard to find the right engineer.

      The alternative, hiring a talented individual who can learn, is Hard and doesn’t scale.

      I’m a particular kind of computer guy and, at my current pay-rate and level of specialization, I can’t just hop in to any other computer job. I could do it on the technical side and be up to speed on lots of other specialties in a few months, but keyword-based resume filters won’t allow it, and most managers wouldn’t even think about taking that “risk” unless they know me personally and know, for instance, that I’ve trained the kind of (say) web-development specialists that they would hire.

      Such is life in our warped economy. I decided to get an MBA instead of fighting this fight. And, unlike the people who hoped that an MBA was a ticket to the gravy train, I actually know something about an actual industry and am looking at the MBA as a supplement — rather than a magic bullet.

    • 0 avatar

      zerofoo is exactly correct.

      When $INDUSTRY cries “We can’t find enough engineers!”, we need to ask “Are engineer salaries rapidly rising in $INDUSTRY?” (Ronnie: now you know what to ask, next time. :-)

      If the answer is “Yes, salaries are rising, kinda-sorta-maybe…” then the “shortage” isn’t.

      As zerofoo noted, the IT biz has been really blatant about this for decades.


    • 0 avatar

      I graduated in ’09 with an EE from a respected school with an above-average GPA and a year’s co-op experience. Took me six months to find work and even then I had to move a part of the country I hated to take a job I ended up hating even more. When I re-entered the job market with two years more experience, things looked about the same.

      Oh, there’s plenty of openings for engineers out there. But everybody wants, at a minimum, 5 years experience and a graduate degree for Engineer I/II caliber work. And with the amount of laid off workers out there, they can absolutely get away with this.

      If you’re a fresh grad, maybe you can get hired on for one of these positions if if you agree to work for peanuts. Otherwise, you can do something like work in the oil fields for a big payday (because its awful nobody else wants to go there) or you can deliver pizzas.

      I like my current job and make good money for a twenty something with a four year degree. However, I face years of cost-of-living pay increases (if that) unless I go back to school so I can become a SME or doggedly pursue a management path. Neither is particularly appetising.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    I’ve joined a couple of Linkedin groups and the recruiting activity over there seems to be intense.

    “If you’re a car guy and an engineer stay out of the industry, it’ll crush your soul”

    Ummm, it hasn’t yet. I would feel out of my element without seeing cars in various level of assembly.

    @Ronnie, have you seen any interest from those companies in recruiting overseas personnel?

    • 0 avatar

      I should have brought up the H1B visa issue. In general I was asking if they were filling their needs, if they were hiring for facilities in Michigan, the region or the US, and in the case of Tata or Saudi Armaco, if they were hiring for their home country operations. One smaller company did tell me that so far they weren’t able to find engineers with their specific qualifications, but I didn’t get the impression this was a dog & pony show intended to pave the way for more H1B visas. The typical response was that they were finding qualified applicants, just not enough of them.

      • 0 avatar

        What sort of qualifications were they looking for? Certain number of years of experience, did years spent in non-automotive industries count? Are they hiring entry-level mechanical, electrical, industrial engineers?

  • avatar

    I hear the same lament from the aerospace industry. I think the root of the problem is the fact that fewer American high school graduates want to go into engineering. It’s harder than English or art history. But,you might get a job after graduating and not have to move back in with mom and dad.

  • avatar

    The comments above are spot-on. I started out in the automotive industry in the 1980s and have worked on and off in it (as an EE) for the past 28 years. I used to read the EE trade rags that would predict a massive shortage of engineers in 2-3 years. The shortages never materialized as far as I could tell as I was looking for work during some of those “shortage” years (maybe shortages were in other industries such as IC design or something).

    And employers nowadays are posting jobs mandating diverse, multiple skillset requirements that cannot realistically be met in the marketplace – this from what I can tell is due primarily due to young, inexperienced and non-technical HR folks who don’t even understand what the abbreviations mean on the job descriptions. And if you don’t have working knowledge of a vast majority of those skillsets, you are eliminated from further consideration.

    If anything, engineers are capable of learning new things – we get paid to think and analyze and must constantly learn in order to do our jobs. But HR people don’t see this – they see a square hole, and are trying to find a perfectly square peg to plug into it.

    The marketplace today is brutal. Long gone are the days when you could go to work for a company and be considered a valuable asset for the duration of your career there, getting mentored while young and becoming one in your sunset years.

    Now, you are simply a resource that is plugged in to do a very specific task until you are no longer needed. Because companies are now being run by budget-minded bean-counters and not people with technical backgrounds, when you get to a pay point high enough, the pressure mounts to eliminate you and replace you with a younger, cheaper version of yourself. Your experience is not valued, as it is intangible and thus the bean-counters cannot place a dollar value on it. That’s a real shame but there is no easy solution for this.

    Sorry if I sound cynical, but I’ve lived through too much “reality” to believe otherwise . . .

    Oh, and another big recruiting problem in Michigan is finding people (from other warmer, milder climates) who actually want to live there year round! Two Michigan winters was enough for me . . .

  • avatar

    Engineering shortage is the result of poor leadership at major corporations. Car companies have hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues on the line, yet they flirt with the possibility of skilled worker shortage. Brilliant. They think that quality people can be obtained by setting up a recruiting booth and snapping their fingers. Why? B/c dumb students were once willing to assume all of the risks of education, under the false pretense that salary would cover the cost of education and the risks. Loose credit has doubled the cost of education, and saturation has diluted the value of a degree. Basically, we were scammed by starry-eyed academics who know nothing about the business world, but who seem to lobby the legislature better than anyone else on earth. Increasing the education of our populace with expensive scholarly academics has not strengthened democracy, but undermined the relationship between governors and the governed.

    A degree only qualifies someone for work, but with degree specialization, students are qualified for fewer and fewer jobs, and businesses are increasingly picky. Experience is the only thing companies pay for, even if applicants have no business acumen. Experience = certainty, in the minds of recruiters, and businesses are risk averse to a fault.

    Now that companies need to push harder than ever, they realize they have created a legion of underperforming drones by hammering down anyone who dared to achieve something. They still use the exact same employment methods that got them into this mess. Enjoy your stye.

  • avatar

    This is very happy news, I know a lot of folks who have suffered for a long time there. I wish them well.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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

    • 0 avatar

      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!

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