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Keerthi Alapati, an electronics controls engineer at Cummins Inc., talks with job seekers during the SAE 2014 World Congress Career Fair.

Job market for engineers remains hot

Automotive industry recruiters know the supply of engineers is thinner than the demand.

The job-openings list includes software engineers with a skill set focused on embedded systems, electrical engineers specializing in ECU design, as well as product design, quality, manufacturing, and test engineers.

“There is an enormous shortage of engineers, and it just seems to get continually worse,” Seth Clayton, Director of Recruiting at Experis, a staffing and project solutions firm, said during an interview with Automotive Engineering magazine at the SAE 2014 World Congress Career Fair.

The economic collapse of 2008-2009 left thousands of engineers without a job. And by the time the lights came back on, many engineers had found jobs in other professions, started their own business, or went back to college.

Angela Boesler, Admissions & Academic Advisor for Walsh College, watched as the jobs crunch led many people to a career diversion. Beginning in late 2007 “that’s when we saw a lot of people, including engineers, coming back to further their education and advance their skill sets to re-enter the workforce.”

Baby boomer retirements have added to the slimming of the engineering workforce. “It’s been a perfect storm of events,” said Clayton.

Even though open engineering positions are easy to find, matching skill sets (as well as matching an employer’s job description) can be challenging.

Daniel Hill, Technical Recruiter for GTA Professional Staffing in Dearborn, MI, agreed with other recruiters at the SAE Career Fair that job openings for engineers are plentiful. “The resource pool is getting shallow. But some companies want experienced engineers even though they’re looking to fill an entry-level position.”

First-year career fair exhibitor Quantum Technologies, Inc., has been on a hiring binge. Last year, the firm hired 50 people. This year, the company wants to add 30 to its staff, including a senior powertrain design and development engineer, and a senior control systems engineer.

“We’re located in Southern California, and it’s hard to find automotive engineers in Southern California,” said Quantum’s Human Resources Manager Kelly DeMello, noting the company’s technical specialists develop and produce natural-gas fuel-storage systems.

Janice Charlton, Human Resources representative for the Hyundai Kia America Technical Center Inc. in Superior Township, MI, said the hiring picture has changed. “We had fewer engineering openings back in 2009, but since then we’ve been hiring 30 to 40 engineers (yearly) for our facilities in California and in Michigan.”

Location can be a hiring draw, or a hiring hindrance.

Sommer Zheng, a business development representative for Swat Auto Parts Co., Ltd., had talked with 10 technical specialists by mid-afternoon on the first day of the career fair. She hoped to find a job candidate interested in working as a general manager, a position in China. “America is a place where technical information is spread, so this is the place” to search for job candidates.

Swat was one of 49 companies exhibiting, a drop from the career fair’s record 60 firms in 2012, according to Martha Tress, Recruitment Sales Manager for SAE International. “We had several aerospace companies in 2012 that aren’t recruiting here now,” said Tress, adding that Formula SAE and Baja SAE are becoming big recruitment zones. The number of companies recruiting at SAE's Collegiate Design Series competitions has soared 30% in the last three years, noted Tress.

Experis’s Clayton said a large percentage of young engineers are landing jobs before they graduate from college: “Companies know where to find them. They can target them with marketing and with career fairs.”

Ben Luther is ready to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May 2014 with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. Even though several of his engineering classmates received job offers before graduation, Luther was upbeat about his job search.

“I’m confident something is going to happen. I’m not extremely concerned,” he said between career fair booth visits.

While salaries vary from company to company, the pay scale for engineers is rebounding. According to Clayton, “Compared to 2009, wages are typically up 10-15%. And there are pockets of skill sets that have outpaced that.”

GTA’s Hill said the economic sting of 2008-2009 has left some employers hesitant to spend money. “In some cases, GTA has seen engineers quit a job to get a pay increase,” he said.

At least in the near-term, the employment climate looks sunny for engineers.

“If you’re an engineer, you’re working right now,” said Ryan Borra, a recruiter with Brightwing, a staffing, training, and consulting firm in Troy, MI.

Said Quantum’s DeMello, “There’s getting to be a lot more competition for hires. I’d call it a buyer’s market for engineers.”

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