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Automotive and Transportation

The automotive industry, like other transportation specialties, is riding the crest of a powerful wave that is pushing employment higher and higher around the world

By Nicholas Basta

As king of the transportation world, the automotive industry has long enjoyed a central role in many national economies, including that of the U.S. When the nation's economy is doing well—as it most emphatically is right now—the automotive industry flourishes, prompting significant job opportunities. Having weathered economic downturns, competitive downsizings and technological innovations, Detroit finds itself in its healthiest business environment in years.

This robust strength carries over into other transportation industries. Even the railroad industry, a perennial also-ran in the transportation race, is enjoying a mini-boom. Industry statistics indicate that 13,000 workers (engineers as well as "engineers") will be hired by the year 2000. Increased levels of rail traffic, as well as the normal levels of attrition, are the source of the new jobs.

Indeed, rising levels of trade and economic activity around the world are driving the growth of transportation. Import-export statistics are setting records; historically low fuel costs are boosting automotive sales. And while consolidations are still occurring among military contractors (which double as the builders of commercial aircraft, satellite delivery systems and other transportation equipment), overall employment remains strong due to their diversification into civilian activities.

Reflecting the good times, General Motors and Ford Motor Co. have regained the top spots on the Fortune 500 list, released in mid-summer. GM posted sales of $167 billion, with Ford moving closer, racking in revenues of $147 billion. Not far behind is Chrysler, followed by Toyota, which earns about a quarter of its $100 billion sales in North America.


Traditionally, students and industry analysts equate automobiles with mechanical engineering, and automotive recruiters have been beating the bushes this past year for BSMEs, offering salaries in the mid- to high-$30's range. But automobiles and vehicles also represent significant opportunities for most other engineering specialties. Electrical engineers carry out design and production of electrical and electronic subsystems. Materials, metallurgical and chemical engineers are called on for developing stronger, lighter-weight components, better-performing coatings and lubricants, and techniques for mass-producing these components more efficiently. Industrial and manufacturing engineers pitch in on the assembly lines, designing more efficient assembly methods and better use of robotics.

Underlying all this technological focus is the pervasive use of computers and software. Successive waves of software development in manufacturing have led to highly automated systems that gather production data as they are created. Data related to quality control and inventory levels are monitored constantly. Manufacturers rely on those systems to give themselves the ability to change production rates rapidly to adjust to altered market conditions—without scrambling the supply chain that brings components into the final assembly area.

Throughout the 1990s, though, the top application of engineering software for automotive manufacturing has been computer-aided design (CAD). CAD systems have reached a level of capability that enables designers to build practically an entire vehicle on the computer screen. The design files that these programs generate are being used in "solid modeling" machinery that builds prototypes of components directly from the CAD data. Alternatively, the CAD drawings are being interpreted by other programs that generate the numerical control data that drives milling and machining equipment once actual production begins.

Evidence of how hot the CAD market can be is found on the Internet, where there are Web sites for each of the leading CAD systems used in automotive design. These Web sites are the Pro/E Job Network, for Parametric Technology's Pro/E system; Unigraphics [Unigraphics Corp.]; Catia [Dassault Systems/IBM]; and SolidWorks [Intergraph]. Information can be found at

The job openings posted there offer both full-time and contract engineering positions that pay $38-42 per hour (about $80,000 for a 2,000-hr. work year). Usually, the minimum requirement is expressed in hours of experience in using a particular CAD system. The 1,000 to 1,500-hr. requirement is certainly within the range of grad students, and may even be achievable by some hardworking undergraduates. Strong skills in mechanical design, vibration and stress analysis, materials, manufacturability, and most of all, raw creativity are also required.


Detroit is in the midst of a vehicle-model revolution, with categories multiplying and market segments being drawn finer and finer. The traditional groupings of compact, mid-size, sedan, light and heavy trucks have expanded to include minivans, sport-utility, luxury, performance and many other categories. Each of these presents new design, production and service challenges for engineers.

This design boom is being abetted by the effort to develop alternative drive systems in the U.S. and Europe. Although the teeth have been removed from the electric-car push that the federal government and some states had adopted several years ago, development work continues. Environmental problems (mostly air pollution) have not disappeared, and the technical progress in batteries, energy-conversion systems and vehicle designs continues to show promise.

How long will the good conditions continue? That is the question asked continually by Wall Street stock-pickers, federal economists and business managers—not to mention engineering students hoping to enter into one of these fields. There were signs that the automobile industry, having enjoyed three successive boom years, was cresting in the summer of 1997. But even if the overall market remains flat, the competitive conditions among automakers worldwide will keep the job market in high gear for the next few years.

Nicholas Basta was editorial director at VerticalNet, Inc., a Horsham, Pa., Internet publisher.

future of your fieldautomotive engineering

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