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Automotive Industry Job Descriptions, Careers in the Automotive Industry, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

The automotive industry produces passenger cars, vans, sport utility vehicles, trucks, buses, and recreational vehicles such as campers. It is one of the nation's largest and most important manufacturing industries, employing about 1.1 million people in 2004. Most of the workers in the industry work in the Great Lakes area, especially in Michigan. However, automotive plants are also found in other areas of the country.

The industry offers many opportunities. It employs tens of thousands of highly educated scientists, engineers, managers, and other professional workers, as well as hundreds of thousands of skilled production workers and unskilled laborers.

Each automobile manufacturer puts out a new line of vehicles every year. Planning for a new model usually begins two to three years before it appears in dealer showrooms. At the planning stage, an auto company's highest officials and product planning experts decide the broad outlines of the new models. They decide, for example, whether to emphasize sport and luxury models or to concentrate on low-priced compacts. They determine general price ranges and make decisions on safety features, fuel economy, size, weight, and air pollution controls. Highly trained and talented automotive designers, working within these guidelines, then sketch their ideas for new cars. After the company's officials have approved one of their drawings, the stylists work with skilled model makers, who build small-scale and then full-sized models of the new lines using clay or fiberglass. Again, the company's top officials review the models and may make further changes.

The automotive industry employs more than a million workers ranging from unskilled assemblers on the assembly lines to highly trained automotive designers who create new car designs. (© Roger Ball/Corbis.)

Automotive engineers then take over to develop the designs for every part of a model. Drafters help them by preparing the necessary blueprints. Physicists and chemists work with the engineers to develop new parts, new kinds of metals, and new uses for materials such as plastic or fiberglass. Mock-up builders then make parts by hand for prototypes of the new model. Test drivers then drive the prototypes and make suggestions for further improvements. Engineers and automotive technicians conduct tests on new parts. Industrial and plant engineers and production planners select the manufacturing procedures for the car. They draw up the list of new materials, tooling, machinery, and plant capacity needed.

Only after much planning and testing is the actual production of parts ready to begin. Some are made in the company's own plants, but many are subcontracted to independent suppliers who specialize in making parts such as gears or brake assemblies. Some of the most skilled production workers in the auto industry are found in parts plants. They include tool and die makers, machine tool operators, machinists, and patternmakers, who make equipment to form the many different parts of a vehicle—major body parts, frames, or chassis, and all the other metal parts needed. Workers in machine shops, foundries, and forge shops produce the metal parts. Sometimes they are pressed out of sheet metal. Production managers, shop supervisors, inspectors, and skilled machine operators are responsible for turning out parts as planned.

Workers sand, paint, and polish the parts before they assemble them. Metal finishers, polishers, production painters, and electroplaters do this work. Industrial upholsters prepare the carpeting, padding, and upholstery covering. Other workers get the windows and other parts ready.

Workers then ship the parts from the parts departments of the auto plant to the assembly lines where the vehicles are put together. Automobile assemblers make up the largest group of workers in the industry. First, many parts go to subassembly lines, where various units of the cars are built up. Then the chassis start moving on conveyor belts down the final assembly lines. Assembly line workers hoist the major body parts into place. Each assembler does an assigned task by attaching a part of a subassembly as each unit passes by. The final assembly of a car can take as little as ninety minutes. As each car nears the end of the line, workers add the seats, fittings, dashboard controls, wheels, lights, bumpers, and other chrome parts. They fuel the gas tank and drive the car off the assembly line on its own power.

Besides production workers, the auto industry employs a number of other workers. Inspectors, production managers, and supervisors check the progress of the assembly line workers. Skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled workers are responsible for maintaining the complicated machinery and equipment and the plant itself. These workers include millwrights, electricians, and industrial machinery repairers.

Many tens of thousands of managers and clerical workers carry on their duties behind the scenes. A major group of workers is responsible for the marketing of the motor vehicles that their company produces. They prepare vast amounts of advertising and information material. They also stay in tune with market trends and work closely with the dealers who sell the cars, trucks, and other vehicles that the industry produces.

Education and Training Requirements

The automotive industry uses on-the-job training for most of its workers. You can learn a semiskilled assembly job or a simpler machine operating job with a few weeks of training. For these jobs, employers generally require that you are in good health and are able to learn to do mechanical work.

To get a production or maintenance job requiring greater skill, you often need at least four years of job experience. Workers such as tool and die makers, pattern-makers, electricians, and maintenance mechanics learn their trade informally by serving as helpers to experienced workers, or they train in a formal apprenticeship program that takes three to four years to complete and combines classroom instruction with on-the-job training. Most apprenticeship programs require at least a high school degree.

Technical workers such as drafters and engineering aides are graduates of two-year technical schools. Technicians are also trained on the job. Automotive stylists attend an art institute or get a bachelor's degree in industrial design to prepare for their career.

Several colleges offer courses in automotive engineering. Many engineers and managers get this kind of specialized training. Others get a degree in mechanical or industrial engineering and are trained by the company. Some jobs require an advanced degree. Most auto companies help employees to qualify for betterpaying jobs by covering part or all of the cost of college courses related to the company's operations.

Getting the Job

The best way to get a job in the industry is by applying directly to plants that make motor vehicles or parts. Sometimes openings are listed in newspaper want ads, on Internet job sites, or on a sign outside the plant. Your state employment office or a private agency may also know of companies that are looking for workers. Local union offices can give you information about training opportunities and the general job outlook in your area. In addition, your school placement office can help you find a job.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Overall, there is considerable opportunity for advancement in the automotive industry. When jobs become available, companies try to fill these positions by promoting their own employees. Production workers, for example, can often become supervisors or technicians if they have the requisite training and abilities. Companies will often provide training for workers promoted from within the company. Engineers are often able to advance into management positions.

The motor vehicle industry is a cyclical one. Its sales and production levels fluctuate with general economic conditions. Despite production increases projected through 2014, new jobs are unlikely to keep pace largely because of increased automation and foreign competition. The need for semiskilled workers is expected to decline, while the need for skilled workers is expected to remain at the current level. The demand for engineers, scientists, and technicians in the industry is expected to grow. They will be needed to test and help develop new kinds of engines, antipollution systems, safety devices, and other new equipment.

Working Conditions

The plants of motor vehicle manufacturers and most parts makers are modern, clean, well lit, and well ventilated. However, they are also noisy and busy because of the machinery. While some dust and fumes are present in certain departments, most factories try to reduce these conditions. Because of safety programs and strict safety rules, industrial accidents are few, considering the volume and tempo of production and the number of workers employed. Working hours depend on the shift worked, but they usually total forty hours per week. Some layoffs occur when plants are changing models. Most plant workers belong to labor unions.

Where to Go for More Information

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers
1401 I St., NW, Ste. 900
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 326-5500

Society of Automotive Engineers
400 Commonwealth Dr.
Warrendale, PA 15096-0001
(724) 776-4841

Earnings and Benefits

Wages and fringe benefits in the industry are among the best for all manufacturing firms. Benefits include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans. Tuition programs for workers and their children and extended unemployment payments after layoffs are among other benefits offered by some companies.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production