Automotive Engineers

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QUICK FACTS about this job:

  • School Subjects: Mathematics (calculus, trig.), Physics, Computer Science
  • Personal Skills: Leadership/management, Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Indoors and outdoors, Primarily multiple locations
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range: $46,080 to $70,000 to $120,610+
  • Certification or Licensing: Voluntary (certification); Required for certain positions (licensing)
  • Outlook: Much more slowly than the average (declining)
  • DOT: 007
  • GOE: 020701,020702,020704
  • NOC: 2132, 2133, 2134, 2141, 2142
  • O*NET-SOC: 17-2041.00, 17-2071.00, 17-2072.00, 17-2111.02, 17-2112.00, 17-2131.00, 17 2141 00, 17 2199 99

OVERVIEW

Automotive engineers are employed by car and truck manufacturers as well as parts suppliers to design and build entire vehicles or individual parts. They may work on the vehicle’s engine design, aerodynamics, performance and fuel efficiency, safety features, ergonomics, and more.

HISTORY

In our car-obsessed society, it is difficult to imagine a time without automobiles. Yet just over 110 years ago, there were none. In the late 1880s, inventors were beginning to explore the idea of a self- propelled vehicle. Early experiments used steam to power a vehicle’s engine. Two German engineers developed the first internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline. Karl Benz finished the first model in 1885, and Gottlieb Daimler, with the help of a young engineer named Wilhelm Maybach, finished building a similar model in 1886. Others around the world had similar successes in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Society of Automobile Engineers (now known as SAE International) was founded in 1905 to serve the professional interests of automotive engineers and function as a venue for discourse regarding the rapidly growing field. Henry Ford, a young engineer, served as the society’s first vice president.

Today, automobiles are infinitely as the Model T, and automotive engineers continue to remain key players in the automotive industry.

THE JOB

Fresh off the assembly line, new car models are faster, more powerful, sleeker, and loaded with every imaginable upgrade option. These new designs and improvements are made possible through the work of automotive engineers. Automotive engineers are responsible for the design, development and manufacturing of automotive vehicles. They have been trained in a variety of engineering specialties, including mechanical, industrial, safety, materials, chemical, and electrical engineering. Automotive engineers further specialize in a specific area of automotive production.

Production engineering. Production engineers design entire systems or single components needed for cars to function. Engineers at Ford Motor Company, for example, may be responsible for designing a better suspension system for a new sports utility model that allows for a smoother ride comparable to that of a sedan. Production engineers often work for large automotive manufacturers, but may also find employment with independent engineering firms specializing in automotive components or systems. Hunter Engineering Company, for example, has had great success in designing and patenting many under-car service equipment and systems used by automotive giants such as Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors.

Once a specific system or part is designed, production engineers must test and validate the design, often using a prototype. They coordinate a team of other engineers, technicians, and suppliers to make necessary alterations in the original plan or material. Identifying cost and manufacturing feasibility is another responsibility of production engineers.

Development engineering. Development engineers coordinate delivery of a complete automobile to meet the standards of the manufacturer, government, and consumer. They run a battery of tests to ensure the safe and reliable interaction of all systems and components, and implement any needed changes in the design, structure, or materials used. For example, development engineers working at Nissan may test and tweak the design of a new engine so it gives the driver power and quick acceleration, while at the same time delivering good mileage and fuel efficiency. Development engineers may also work on the vehicle’s attributes such as its weight, aerodynamic drag, transmission systems, and more. They are also concerned with the car’s ergonomic design. For example, heating and cooling systems must work efficiently, and have controls that are easy to use and well placed on the instrument panel. Development engineers are also responsible for many of the alternative fuel cars available on the market today such as hybrid vehicles. Development engineers at Honda are currently perfecting a vehicle with a “clean diesel” engine design that will be available in a few years.

Manufacturing engineers. Engineers working for automotive manufacturers plan and implement the assembly of the entire vehicle. Engineers working for automotive suppliers have the same responsibility for individual parts or systems. Manufacturing engineers oversee the design and layout of the equipment, including the workers assigned to the assembly line. They also run tests to ensure the systems and components stay true to quality and are able to stand up to normal wear and tear, and make adjustments as needed. The manufacturing and installation of parts—including interior and exterior trim, materials for seats, and body panels—are just some items that fall under the responsibility of manufacturing engineers. They often collaborate with a team of other engineers, technicians, and test drivers.

REQUIREMENTS

High School

High school students interested in automotive engineering should take a great deal of mathematics, including geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and two years of algebra. They should develop a strong background in physics, chemistry, biology, and computer programming or applications. Because automotive engineers must communicate constantly with other engineers, scientists, clients, and consumers, four years of language arts are essential.

Postsecondary Training

After high school, students should attend a four-year college or university and earn a bachelor’s degree in automotive, mechanical, electronics, materials engineering, or a related engineering field. Some engineers major in a science such as physics, computers, or chemistry and then find work applying their science in an engineering field or go to graduate school for a master’s or doctorate degree in engineering. Many engineers, no matter their undergraduate major, now pursue advanced degrees in the field.

Certification and Licensing

Many engineers become certified. Certification is a status granted by technical or professional organizations (such as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers) for the purpose of recognizing and documenting an individual’s abilities in a specific engineering field.

Licensure as a professional engineer is recommended since an increasing number of employers require it. Even those employers who do not require licensing will view it favorably when considering new hires or when reviewing workers for promotion. Licensing requirements vary from state to state. In general, however, they involve graduating from an accredited school, having four years of work experience, and passing the eight-hour Fundamentals of Engineering exam and the eight-hour Principles and Practice of Engineering exam. Depending on your state, you can take the Fundamentals exam shortly before your graduation from college or after you have received your bachelor’s degree. At that point you will be an engineer-in-training. Once you have fulfilled all the licensure requirements, you receive the designation professional engineer. Visit the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying’s Web site, http://www.ncees.org, for more information on licensure.

Other Requirements

Students who are interested in becoming automotive engineers should enjoy solving problems, developing logical plans, and designing things. They should have a strong interest and ability in science and mathematics. Engineers often work on projects in teams, so prospective engineers should be able to work well both alone and with others.

EXPLORING

Perhaps the best way for high school students to explore the field of engineering is by contacting the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS). JETS can help students learn about different fields within engineering and can guide students toward science and engineering fairs.

Participation in science and engineering fairs can be an invaluable experience for a high school student interested in automotive engineering. Through these fairs, students learn to do their own research and applications in a variety of engineering fields. Too often, students leave high school with a strong academic background in mathematics and sciences, but have never applied their knowledge to the real world. By developing a project for a fair, students begin to learn how to think like an engineer by creatively using their academic knowledge to solve real-life problems.

EMPLOYERS

Automotive engineers can find employment with one of the Big Three U.S. automobile makers (General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler LLC), major foreign automakers that have factories or divisions in the United States (Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, BMW, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz), as well as any of the thou sands of private manufacturing companies.

Other possibilities for engineers can be found in academia as instructors or researchers or as writers for engineering-oriented publications. Some mechanical engineers work as test drivers for auto motive companies and publishers.

STARTING OUT

College and graduate school programs can help newly degreed auto motive engineers locate jobs. These schools are often in touch with prospective employers who are in need of engineers. Conferences, trade shows, and engineering career fairs can also be good places for new engineers to begin meeting employers and setting up interviews.

ADVANCEMENT

As automotive engineers gain more experience, they are given greater responsibilities and tougher problems to solve. At this stage, the engineer will be involved in more decision making and independent work. Some engineers advance to become engineering team managers or supervisors of entire projects. They also may enter administrative or sales positions. In addition, many high-level corporate and government executives started out as engineers.

Advancement depends upon experience and education. The more experience automotive engineers get, the more independence and responsibilities they will probably gain; however, an automotive engineer with a bachelor’s degree will, in all probability, not make it to the highest levels of the field. Automotive engineers who are interested in going into corporate, industrial, or executive positions often go back to school to earn degrees in law or business.

EARNINGS

Engineers earn some of the highest starting salaries of any career. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that in 2007 engineers with a bachelor’s degree earned the following starting salaries by specialty: electrical/electronics, $55,292; industrial/manufacturing, $55,067; materials, $56,233; and mechanical, $54,128.

Salaries for engineers in the automotive industry vary by employer, location, experience, and specialty of the engineer. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, industrial engineers employed in motor vehicle parts manufacturing earned mean annual wages of $67,300 in 2006. Mechanical engineers earned $70,090.

Salaries for engineers employed in all fields ranged from less than $46,080 to $120,610 or more.

Automotive engineers who work for a company usually receive benefits such as vacation days, sick leave, health and life insurance, and a savings and pension program. Self-employed engineers must provide their own benefits.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Automotive engineers do the majority of their work inside an office. They often are assisted by clerical support staff or research and technical staff members located in offices nearby. Many times, automotive engineers are required to spend at least part of their time on a specific work site. They may find themselves at manufacturing sites or on an assembly line to work on special projects, or to oversee the production of a specific component. People interested in becoming automotive engineers should be flexible about work sites and adjust easily to different types of environments. Some travel is expected, especially to manufacturing plants or contractors located abroad, or to attend automobile conventions or trade shows.

Work hours vary, depending at the task or project at hand. Many times, automotive engineers are expected to work late into the night or on weekends to meet manufacturing deadlines. Automotive engineers often work with other engineers, technicians, and assembly line workers, so the ability to communicate ideas and work well as part of a team is important.

OUTLOOK

Employment in the motor vehicle and parts manufacturing industry is predicted to decline by 14 percent through 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL). Improvements in productivity and more foreign outsourcing of parts have reduced opportunities in the field. Despite this prediction, the industry remains one of the largest employers in the United States, and positions will continue to be available as workers retire or leave the field for other reasons. Employment for industrial engineers employed in motor vehicle and parts manufacturing is expected to grow more slowly than the aver age, and employment of mechanical engineers is expected to experience a steady decline during this same time period.

Employment for all engineers is expected to grow about as fast as the average through 2016, according to the USDL.

Automotive engineers who stay current concerning the latest technologies and remain flexible in regards to type of employer, location, and other factors will most likely find employment for years to come.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For a list of accredited schools and colleges, contact

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology

111 Market Place, Suite 1050

Baltimore, MD 21202-7116

Tel: 410-347-7700

http://www.abet.org

For more information on careers in engineering, contact

American Society for Engineering Education

1818 N Street, NW, Suite 600

Washington, DC 20036-2479

Tel: 202-331-3500

http://www.asee.org and http://www.engineeringk12.org/students

For information on mechanical engineering, contact American Society of Mechanical Engineers

Three Park Avenue

New York, NY 10016-5990

Tel: 800-843-2763

Email: infocentral@asme.org

http://www. asme.org

For information on engineering careers and students clubs and com petitions, contact

Junior Engineering Technical Society

1420 King Street, Suite 405

Alexandria, VA 22314-2794

Tel: 703-548-5387

Email: info@jets.org

http://www.jets.org

For information on licensure and practice areas, contact:

National Society of Professional Engineers

1420 King Street

Alexandria, VA 22314-2794

Tel: 703-684-2800

http://www.nspe.org

For information on careers in automotive engineering, contact:

SAE International

400 Commonwealth Drive

Warrendale, PA 15096-0001

Tel: 877-606-7323

http://automobile.sae.org

For information on certification, contact

Society of Manufacturing Engineers

One SME Drive

Dearborn, MI 48 121-2408

Tel: 800-733-4763

http://www.sme.org

INTERVIEW

Jerome Cortez is an engineering manager for front suspensions and axles at Hendrickson Truck Systems. He entered the automotive field right out of college 13 years ago. Jerome discussed the field below.

Q. What is one thing that young people may not know about a career in automotive engineering?

A. It may already be known, but automotive engineering is very diverse in subject and job responsibilities. For example, the product you work on can be individual components like suspensions, axles, transmissions, and engines, or a complete sys tem of these components designing how they all work together. Within each component or subsystem, your job function may be as a project engineer who primarily coordinates the technical work of internal as well as external people to launch a product line, or as one of many functional engineers who does the technical work, such as finite element analysis (a computer simulation technique), lab testing, or vehicle testing.

You can also wear several hats and do some of everything. The number of hats you wear is usually in inverse proportion to the size of the company. The larger the company, the more compartmentalized the functions become; the smaller the company is, the more versatile an engineer needs to be since most small- to medium-sized companies can not justify the specialized functions.

Q. How did you train for this job?

A. On-the-job training was a key part of my training. My mentor was my supervisor and he put a lot of value on the technical aspect of engineering. Not all companies are able to invest in a formal training or mentoring program, and most are usually the larger companies and are able to invest the time and money to be able to train, then place, employees. Most medium to small companies hire to an immediate need for a position. This is why most mentoring relationships in these companies are formed informally while working together, like mine with my supervisor.

Another source of training was reference books. I had to refresh my memory on various topics using my college textbooks on my own time. I would recommend keeping all of your college textbooks. My college major was in mechanical engineering. I have also attended many seminars held by the Society of Automotive Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and other organizations.

Q. What are the most important personal and professional qualities for people in your career?

A. Contrary to popular belief, you actually need to be a people person to succeed in engineering. In almost all types of engineering, you have to deal with other people to get things done and your people skills can contribute to your success or can be your downfall. Another trait that most engineers have inherently is problem-solving skills. I am not sure if this is taught at school or those with this trait are drawn to engineering and it is reinforced. An engineer can typically learn to work across a myriad of fields because the one common thing all engineers do is solve problems.

Q. What is the future employment outlook for automotive engineers?

A. People will always need transportation. You need food and a home. The food, furniture, and materials need to get from where they are made or stored to you or your house, so the automotive and transportation industry is here to stay.

Unfortunately, the Big Three have taken a large blow in the past decade, and most recently Ford and Chrysler have seen major changes. The good news is that business is always changing and business models are always changing. I believe we have gone through some globalization of engineering and sourcing, and as an industry we are feeling the impact of that, both good and bad. We can not compete with the global labor market, so our strength in the future will be in our technical capabilities.

As a final note, the emerging market is Asia, namely China and India. Start taking those Mandarin classes because it will not be long until they become a technical superpower.

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