Jerome Cortez is an engineering manager for front suspensions and axles at Hendrickson Truck Systems. He entered the automotive field right out of college 13 years ago. Jerome discussed the field with the editors of Careers in Focus: Automotives.
Q. What is one thing that young people may not know about a career in automotive engineering?
A. It may already be known, but automotive engineering is very diverse in subject and job responsibilities. For example, the product you work on can be individual components like suspensions, axles, transmissions, and engines, or a complete system of these components designing how they all work together. Within each component or subsystem, your job function may be as a project engineer who primarily coordinates the technical work of internal as well as external people to launch a product line, or as one of many functional engineers who does the technical work, such as finite element analysis (a computer simulation technique), lab testing, or vehicle testing. You can also wear several hats and do some of everything. The number of hats you wear is usually in inverse proportion to the size of the company. The larger the company, the more compartmentalized the functions become; the smaller the company is, the more versatile an engineer needs to be since most small- to medium-sized companies can not justify the specialized functions.
Q. How did you train for this job?
A. On-the-job training was a key part of my training. My mentor was my supervisor and he put a lot of value on the technical aspect of engineering. Not all companies are able to invest in a formal training or mentoring program, and most are usually the larger companies and are able to invest the time and money to be able to train, then place, employees. Most medium to small companies hire to an immediate need for a position. This is why most mentoring relationships in these companies are formed informally while working together, like mine with my supervisor. Another source of training was reference books. I had to refresh my memory on various topics using my college textbooks on my own time. I would recommend keeping all of your college textbooks. My college major was in mechanical engineering. I have also attended many seminars held by the Society of Automotive Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and other organizations.
Q. What are the most important personal and professional qualities for people in your career?
A. Contrary to popular belief, you actually need to be a people person to succeed in engineering. In almost all types of engineering, you have to deal with other people to get things done and your people skills can contribute to your success or can be your downfall. Another trait that most engineers have inherently is problem-solving skills. I am not sure if this is taught at school or those with this trait are drawn to engineering and it is reinforced. An engineer can typically learn to work across a myriad of fields because the one common thing all engineers do is solve problems.
Q. What is the future employment outlook for automotive engineers?
A. People will always need transportation. You need food and a home. The food, furniture, and materials need to get from where they are made or stored to you or your house, so the automotive and transportation industry is here to stay. Unfortunately, the Big Three have taken a large blow in the past decade, and most recently Ford and Chrysler have seen major changes. The good news is that business is always changing and business models are always changing. I believe we have gone through some globalization of engineering and sourcing, and as an industry we are feeling the impact of that, both good and bad. We can not compete with the global labor market, so our strength in the future will be in our technical capabilities. As a final note, the emerging market is Asia, namely China and India. Start taking those Mandarin classes because it will not be long until they become a technical superpower.