AN INTERNATIONAL shortage of automotive engineers is changing engineering from a local into a global career.
Car design is already cosmopolitan, with a mix of nationalities in most styling departments. Engineering is going the same way, but slowly.
'Internationalization is not nearly as prevalent in engineering as it has become in design over the past 10 years,' said Garel Rhys, director of the Center for Automotive Industry Research at the University of Cardiff in the UK. 'At the moment it is happening mainly at an intracompany level as part of the natural career progression within organizations.'
Although the shortage of engineers is felt across Europe, the UK has a particular problem.
'Manufacturing industry has a poor image here,' said Rhys. 'Engineering is not seen as a great career and young people have been encouraged to go into services, not manufacturing.'
Too few applicants
Earlier this year Land Rover tried to fill 150 engineering positions to cope with heavy demand for its new Freelander model. It only received 20 applications. 'Britain is running out of engineers,' said Ben Whitworth, assistant editor of Professional Engineering magazine. 'British industry needs 35,000 new engineers every year just to replace those who are leaving. Smaller and smaller numbers are going into the profession. Young people are being attracted by what are seen as hip disciplines, such as IT and media.'
The shortage of engineers is being driven by increased demands on engineering time. Model development has been speeded up, and government demands for greater safety and environmental protection have increased.
Earlier this year, Fiat Group established its own recruitment company, based in London, to find engineers and other employees for Fiat Auto and other subsidiaries. Its initial task was to recruit 200 engineers between the ages of 24 and 28.
'We may still be seen as an Italian company,' said Richard Gadeselli, head of corporate communications for the Fiat Group, 'but we are a global player and there are not enough Italian engineers to go around our group.'
Assessing the extent of the movement within the engineering community is difficult. Most automakers said they don't know the national makeup of their engineering force.
BMW and Renault are exceptions. BMW said it has just under 4,500 engineers. More than 95 percent are German, with the remainder from Austria, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia. At the end of last year, Renault had 6,680 engineers and executives, of whom 169 were not French.
Fiat has over 2,300 engineers in its car manufacturing operation. This represents 11 percent of the total workforce, but no nationality breakdown is available.
Daimler-Benz needs to recruit 1,200 engineers and computer specialists this year, in such areas as production, development, purchasing and logistics. It will advertise internationally to find them.
'We have no engineering shortage in France,' said a spokesman for Renault in Paris.
He said Renault has been recruiting for many years at universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard in the USA, University of Aachen in Germany, and Turin Politecnico in Italy.
PSA, Opel and Ford were unable to supply a separate figure for the number of engineers.
But, says Ford, the 600-strong Ford Focus team is made up of people from the UK, USA, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Spain, France, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
'We find the people we need but it is getting harder,' says Dirk Snauwaert, a spokesman for Opel. 'We have to put a greater emphasis on our image when we advertise and we use head hunters. We particularly need people who are qualified in computer simulation.'
At Ford, the need is particularly acute for engineers with strong computer skills, says Phil Martens, chief engineer for vehicle and chassis engineering at Ford.
'My perception from the competitive recruitment activity I see in the UK and Germany is that there is a shortage of auto engineers,' he said from his office in Cologne, Germany. 'There is definitely a trend toward international movement within the engineering community. For example, I'm here from the USA.'
Ford-owned Visteon Automotive Systems has its European base in the UK. It employs 1,100 engineers in the UK and 300 in Germany. So far this year it has recruited 100 engineers. It has vacancies for another 100.
Recruiting is 1/8tough'
'Sourcing suitable people is a problem,' said Campbell Hair, Visteon's head of European human resources. 'It is a tough market and companies have to be inventive in their recruitment strategies. It is no longer sufficient to put an advertisement in the national press or a trade magazine.'
Visteon works through agencies and the Internet.
'By posting our jobs on the Net we get pan-European and global interest,' said Hair. 'The age profile of our engineers is young. The majority are under 40. At present most of our UK-based engineers are English and those in Germany are German. This may change as we intend putting people into Turin, Paris, Stuttgart and Munich.'
A graduate engineer with three to four years of experience could expect a starting salary of around £25,000 ($41,000) with Visteon.
Visteon has 16 European plants, including four operations in eastern Europe.
'We acquired an important engineering resource with our expansion into eastern and central Europe,' said Hair. 'There is a good engineering skill base in the region and we inherited people through our acquisitions and recruited new people to the company.'
English language is key
To make it easier to globalize, Visteon offers to teach employees English.
'Employees in the region are very willing to learn,' said Hair. 'All of the language courses we have put on have been full.'
The growing acceptance of English as the international language of automotive engineering is making globalization possible.
At Renault, 'there is an open-minded attitude,' said the spokesman. 'All the newly hired engineers now must speak English, even if they will work in a non-English-speaking country.'
However, said Rhys, the UK professor, 'I'm not sure that engineering will ever become quite as international as design.'
For example, he said, in Germany 'engineers have status and they are paid accordingly. They would find it difficult to get as good a financial package in other countries so they would be unlikely to leave.'