This article is part of our April 2014 special report, “Transportation Electrification,” which highlights technological advances in the industry that will make vehicles safer, less reliant on fossil fuels, and eventually autonomous.
THE INSTITUTEThe rapid development of such vehicular technologies as advanced-safety, autonomous-driving, and infotainment systems, as well as electrified powertrains, next-generation hybrid and electric cars, and advanced batteries means that automakers and their suppliers need lots of talented employees.
“There’s a big demand for engineers who know power electronics, as well as for those in disciplines such as software and computer science, not traditionally part of the automotive industry,” says IEEE Fellow David Munson, dean of engineering at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. “This might be the most interesting time the automotive industry has ever seen.”
Munson sees the industry responding not only to new technologies but also to a growth in sales. More cars were sold in 2013 than in any year since 2007. As a result, the industry is hiring to rebuild its workforce after years of layoffs and hiring slowdowns connected to the recent recession. But along with reports of an engineering shortage, automakers report difficulties finding qualified employees.
THE PATH LESS FOLLOWED
One reason is because few universities teach power electronics, one of the most important disciplines for building today’s electronics-packed vehicles.
“We don’t have enough trained people who can do the job,” says IEEE Member Srabanti Chowdhury. She is an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering at Arizona State University, in Tempe. She is also a principal investigator at the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a project run by North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, to improve energy efficiencies in electric cars, among other applications. The U.S. Department of Energy chose the school earlier this year to lead the US$140 million public-private program.
Chowdhury says the industry needs people “very comfortable handling high-voltage, high-current concepts in semiconductor devices.” This may not seem as interesting to engineers as, say, nanoscale computer circuits for high-speed computer applications, which have attracted more attention and more students, but power electronics play a vital role in the newest vehicles, she continues. “Energy-efficient power conversion is playing a vital role in power electronics.” Chowdhury believes that engineers with a Ph.D. in power electronics will especially have a long-term advantage in the industry.
IEEE Fellow Ali Emadi concurs. “I strongly advise students or recent graduates to consider getting a master’s degree or a Ph.D. in engineering focusing on automotive technologies because cars are getting so much more sophisticated and electrified.”
Emadi, director of the McMaster Institute for Automotive Research and Technology (MacAUTO) in Hamilton, Ont., Canada, suggests that students get involved with projects such as the Formula Hybrid competition, cosponsored by IEEE, in which his university regularly competes. Those who participate often get job offers nine months to a year before graduation, he says. Emadi is also the director of Electric Mobility Canada, a national not-for-profit association for those involved with electric-powered transportation.
For college students just getting started, Emadi suggests focusing on the fundamentals. “Get a really good background in electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering and software, or pursue mechatronics, which is a combination of all four,” he says.
JACK OF ALL TRADES
With so many different technologies in today’s vehicles, the ability to work in multidisciplinary teams is “nonnegotiable,” according to Munson. “For electric cars, for example, we’ve got to have teams that know about communications, computers, electric power, and several other disciplines within electrical engineering.” In addition to working in teams, the students must become more multidisciplinary themselves. The University of Michigan’s Munson says some of his students interested in energy storage are taking chemical engineering courses and working on projects outside the classroom that involve new types of batteries.
Most car companies have online job boards and attend career fairs at engineering schools. “They’re recruiting heavily at our university,” Munson reports, saying that Michigan’s fall career day attracts both automakers and auto suppliers. Many companies also recruit at events organized by professional organizations. General Motors, for example, will be recruiting at this month’s Formula Hybrid competition at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in Loudon, as well as at the Society of Women Engineers’ annual conference in October, in Los Angeles.
Munson also suggests looking for jobs outside the big automakers themselves, at one of the many other companies that serve the industry. “Some of these ‘tier one’ suppliers are gigantic companies that have very impressive research and development facilities in the state of Michigan,” he says.
Even engineers who did not originally plan to work in the transportation sector can make the transition, adds Emadi. They can work part-time toward a master’s degree or enroll in short courses, such as the ones offered at the IEEE Transportation Electrification Conference and Expo. The most important thing, he says, is to learn the language of the automotive industry, which is different from what engineers are used to in other disciplines.
“Engineers might not realize just yet how big an opportunity we’re talking about,” Emadi says. The demand in transportation isn’t just for the next few years, he says. It’s going to continue for decades, expanding into aerospace, buses, marine, railroads, and trucks. “It’s a big, big industry,” he says.