So You Want to Break Into the Automotive Industry
Five programs to help you land a job.
Nearly 4 million Americans work in the automobile industry. Yet, paradoxically, good jobs are hard to find. Getting a bachelor's degree tailored to the industry can put you at the head of the class-and maybe even on the road to automotive stardom.
Freeman Thomas, one of the principal designers behind the Audi TT and Volkswagen New Beetle, and now Ford Motor Company's director of strategic design, had done a stint in the Air Force and contemplated a career as a dental technician when he read that Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, offered a degree in transportation design. "I found the address, went up there, and it was like a revelation," he says. "I felt like, 'God, I've got to get in there.' "
Of course, plenty of other roads lead to the car industry. Many have nothing to do with college or any sort of car-centric training, but students who hope to parlay their love for cars into a profitable career ought to keep their professional goals in mind as they look to the future.
"Clearly, there are many top engineering schools that will prepare you for the automotive industry," says Raj Nair, Ford's vice president of global product development and an alumnus of what's now known as Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. "But when you can find a program that has courses specifically tailored to automotive engineering—for example, suspension design or powertrain controls—it gives you a big advantage."
But maybe you don't want to be an engineer or a designer. Maybe you're interested in automotive marketing or vintage car restoration or working on racing cars. Here are five four-year college programs that provide a road map to a plum position in one of the country's most vibrant industries.
Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California
Many schools have excellent industrial design programs, but if car design is your specific goal, then Art Center is the Promised Land. Established in 1948, its transportation design program is the oldest in the country. The undergrad syllabus entails eight terms of immersive studies in the history, theory, and practice of automotive design. "You put your head down for four years," says Ken Saward, who's now a design manager at Mazda. "There are no parties. There are no fraternities. You work 24 hours a day." The benefit, he says, is not only excellent skills but also entrance into a select club. As he says, "You can go to any design studio in the world and find alumni from Art Center."
* Estimated that 50% of the vehicles on the road were designed by or feature creative contributions by Art Center alumni.
About the Program
Approx. yearly tuition: $36,500
Degrees awarded in 2013: 34
Professional placement rate: 91 percent
McPherson College, McPherson, Kansas
If you're looking for a job in the restoration field—writing about restoring old cars, managing restoration projects, or, most challenging of all, restoring cars yourself—McPherson College ought to be your top choice. With a 33,000-square-foot shop, the school offers a broad spectrum of classes covering everything from rebuilding drivetrains to restoring sheetmetal. "McPherson exposes you to all of the facets that go into a restoration," says grad Adam Hammer. But unlike technical schools, McPherson also offers liberal arts classes in subjects such as business and history, which helped Hammer open his own soup-to-nuts auto restoration shop, Hammer & Dolly in Traverse City, Michigan, after only a few years in the business.
* Only institution offering a four-year bachelor's degree in automotive restoration.
About the Program
Approx. yearly tuition: $25,000
Degrees awarded in 2013: 19
Professional placement rate:
University of North Carolina, Charlotte, North Carolina
A mechanical engineering degree is a must for anybody who wants to work on the technical side of the racing world, but a concentration in motorsports at UNC-Charlotte is as close as you can come to a job guarantee. "All of the teams in NASCAR have UNC-Charlotte alumni at some level," says graduate Vincent Guliani, who worked in NASCAR for several years before returning to his first love, dirt track racing. The school's two motorsports labs have engine, chassis, and shock dynos; a full range of fabrication tools and equipment; and a custom-built wind tunnel. With a campus within 50 miles of 90 percent of the Sprint Cup teams, it's no surprise that UNC-Charlotte graduates account for 10 percent of all the engineers in NASCAR.
* NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Joey Coulter is currently a motorsports engineering student.
About The Program
Approx. yearly tuition: $6500 in-state, $19,000 out-of-state
Degrees awarded in 2013: 34
Professional placement rate: 100 percent
Automotive marketing and management
Northwood University, main campuses in West Palm Beach, Florida and Midland, Michigan
A substantial chunk of the automobile industry is devoted to selling cars and trucks, and the components that go into and onto them. Yet Northwood University—aimed at aspiring managers and entrepreneurs—is the only school in the country offering degree tracks that focus on dealerships and the aftermarket world. It has two residential campuses—one in Michigan, one in Florida—as well as several, smaller satellite campuses elsewhere. Besides offering standard business fare such as statistics and accounting, Northwood gives its students a competitive advantage by also incorporating automotive-specific classes such as Supply Chain Management and Current Issues in Global Aftermarket. As graduate Jarod Adams, now group marketing manager at Robert Bosch, puts it: "The day I started at Delphi, I knew I had a leg up on the other new employees. "
*Puts on big student-run auto shows at main campuses in Florida and Michigan each year.
About the Program
Approx. yearly tuition: $23,500
Degrees awarded in 2013: 79
Professional placement rate: 88 percent
Kettering University, Flint, Michigan
For seven decades, Kettering University was known as the General Motors Institute, and it provided the world's largest automaker with annual insfusions of fresh engineering blood. Now independent, Kettering still maintains ties with the auto industry. It also offers a unique program that doesn't merely prepare students to work but puts them to work—three months in school, followed by three months on the job, repeat until graduation. "It's a pretty intense, rigorous program," says Mike Hurley, a grad and now GM vehicle dynamics engineer. "But by the time I graduated, I'd already spent two-and-a-half years in the work environment, so I was better prepared than students who came from more conventional schools. "
*Highest average starting salaries (about $60,000) in Michigan for BS graduates.
About the program
Approx. yearly tuition: $37,000
Degrees awarded in 2013: 187
Professional placement rate: 98 percent
Not all the AUTOMOBILE staff took the same road into the industry…
Ronald Ahrens: Ushered young couples driving musclecars into Omaha, Nebraska's 76th and West Dodge Drive-In.
Robert Cumberford: Dropped out of Art Center and landed as a junior designer at GM. (Who else could drop out and get that job?)
Patrick Hoey: Mounted tires, fixed flats, and dealt with clueless customers at Belle Tire in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Michael Jordan: Wrote articles on racing while clearning pools around Northern California in a rusty Datsun pickup.
Georg Kacher: Sat down at a typewriter after a British car magazine had an office fire, which destroyed manuscripts and left them in need of stories.
Jamie Kitman: Pumped gas at a Merit station on eastbound Route 46 in Fort Lee, New Jersey.