Auto industry still in overdrive in search for tomorrow's talent

Apr 2, 2001

"Based on number of white-collar retirements, Chrysler Group expects to complete most of white-collar layoffs by end of March, reducing salaried head count by about 6,800, including 1,800 workers on contract."

"Based on number of white-collar retirements, Chrysler Group expects to complete most of white-collar layoffs by end of March, reducing salaried head count by about 6,800, including 1,800 workers on contract."
-The Detroit News, February 26, 2001

"Financially hemorrhaging Federal-Mogul Corp. is trimming its salaried workforce for the second time in a year. The latest reduction affects 1,100 employees globally."
-The Detroit Free Press, February 27, 2001

"Stock markets stabilized Thursday following three days of volatile trading, but tense investors traded cautiously amid continuing uncertainty about the economy in this country and overseas. Although investors were hoping that the 317-point plunge blue chips took Wednesday would inspire a rally, they saw little reason to do much buying."
-The Detroit Free Press, March 16, 2001

The unpredictability of the American economy over the past several months, particularly the last few weeks, defies description. Today, most American industry leaders realize this fact is becoming a reality of inescapable proportions.

In addition, the media and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan are running out of ways to delicately describe what's turning into one of the most curious economic downturns in the history of the United States. And if history is indeed an instructive force in American life, then the automotive industry is swiftly becoming the focal point of this latest economic unraveling, just as it had been in past years.

Perhaps this is natural. After all, the auto industry is one of the largest revenue generators of the American economy. It makes sense that the largest industries would suffer the most from periodic economic inconsistency. But according to newspaper and media reports throughout the country, this economic plunge is no temporary anomaly: the loss of white and blue-collar jobs, particularly in the automotive field, is real and may have long-lasting effects. Consumer confidence, once considered the bastion of the U.S. economy, is now faltering after almost a decade of prosperity.

Some feel the most worrisome news is the reaction of automotive executives toward this latest economic glitch, leaders who typically speak of a positive future in spite of economic uncertainty. These days, many of them express the fear that college students, faced with the doom and gloom that currently hovers over the U.S. economic system like the ethereal smoke from a rusted exhaust system, will pass up careers in the automotive field for positions of greater security and consistency in other disciplines.

Yet, at Kettering University, this fear is dismissed by a mere shrug of a student's shoulders and by the mild, bemused shaking of a professor's head when confronted with questions regarding the future of the automotive industry. Most students majoring in automotive-related engineering fields at Kettering see the current economic slowdown and its affect on the U.S. economy as a temporary situation that has little impact on their decision to pursue careers in the automotive field. To them, it's part of the long, profitable and sometimes tenuous history of their chosen field.

At least that's how Craig Hoff, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at Kettering, views the current economic outlook and its impact on the automotive industry and students who wish to pursue careers in the field. Hoff said some automotive engineering students may be rethinking their chosen field of study, but there is strong evidence that the field is still ripe for the right kind of talent.

For example, General Dynamics recently landed a $5 billion contract to produce a new Army scout vehicle. Hoff also said that one of his students, who works for the military producer, reported that General Dynamics is currently understaffed by more than 200 engineers and continues hiring away talent from DaimlerChrysler and other companies to fill the slots.

"Ford Motor Co. held a recent job fair in the Detroit area that one of my students attended," Hoff explained. "About 300 students showed up for the fair and according to my student, 75 percent received job offers. This shows that auto companies still seek young talent during this period of uncertainty."

Garth Motschenbacher, director of Corporate Relations at Kettering, further emphasizes Hoff's observations by suggesting that the economic downturn will not affect the industry's ability to attract talent, but he noted that companies must work to make sure they keep their recruitment active. "Companies need to be bold, act quickly and move fast with their business and also with new hiring," he said. "I hope that automakers and automotive suppliers learned from the late 80s and early 90s that cutting off recruitment efforts only lengthens the slowdown." He also added that the leadership automotive companies and suppliers have shown by slowing production, laying off contract personnel and closing plants that make sense in the long run, will lead to "a quicker recovery and therefore no long-term effects on the pipeline of talent for the automotive industry."

Joel Berry also believes the economic slowdown will not impact the recruitment of engineering talent to the automotive and other engineering-related fields. "Mechanical Engineering graduates should experience little difficulty in adjusting to the economic slowdown," said the head of Kettering's Mechanical Engineering Dept. "The Mechanical Engineering degree has a very broad-based educational focus that allows practicing mechanical engineers the flexibility of working in numerous departments within their current organizations as well as working in non-automotive companies." Berry also said that current projections indicate a shortage of 100,000 engineers over the next five years, with a large percentage of this shortage in the automotive industry.

As Hoff, Motschenbacher and Berry suggest, the ebb and flow of the automotive industry is a natural and somewhat predictable phenomenon. Before losing his senate seat in this past election, current Energy Secretary Spence Abraham (R-Mich.) worked hard to get a bill passed that would make it easier for immigrants with technological skills to come to the U.S. and secure engineering positions. One look at the employment section of the Sunday issue of "The Detroit Free Press" shows that many openings are still available in automotive and other engineering-related industries as well. Because of the shortage of engineers in the Detroit area for automotive and non-automotive related positions, Hoff does not hesitate in encouraging students to pursue a career in automotive engineering.

"Historically, the auto industry ends up righting itself," he explained. "In less than three years, we may be looking at a scenario that is completely different than what we have now. More importantly, our students not only learn about the engineering principles of automotive design and development, they learn that like other industries, the automotive field is heavily connected to the economic growth of the U.S. Although our students receive one of the best engineering education and co-op opportunity available in the country today, they also learn how to handle the stress that accompanies their work in their chosen field."

But for Kettering Electrical Engineering senior Stacey L. Hinton, of Burton, Mich., the current economic situation and outlook is still a concern. However, she does feel her Kettering education and co-op experience will help her secure a good position following graduation in June. "Unlike other schools, Kettering gave me two-and-a-half years of professional experience, which allows me to engage in projects for a prospective employer immediately," she said.

Like many Kettering University students, Hinton remains cognizant of the economy as she plans her job search. Additionally, she does feel encouraged by the number of engineering positions still available in the industry, which helps her build confidence with her current job search. And if the comments of Hoff, Motschenbacher and Berry serve as any indication of what lies ahead, the concern conveyed by Kettering students will be short lived and considered a forgettable anomaly in both the automotive and non-automotive engineering fields.