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Auto industry hunting for designers

By: Theresa Clift

January 14, 2013

DETROIT (Jan. 14, 11 a.m. ET) — Like most of his generation, Mark West, chairman of the transportation department at the College for Creative Studies here, grew up turning wrenches and tinkering with cars alongside his father in the family garage.

But his 10-year-old son would rather play video games than play with tools.

Although enrollment at the nation’s top automotive design colleges, such as CCS, remains steady, automakers say they are having a difficult time finding students who love cars and have a passion for design.

That’s forcing design schools to find new ways to train students to become the hands-on car designers automakers want.

Ralph Gilles, Chrysler Group’s head of design and a CCS grad, returns to the school regularly to recruit that type of student — a type that’s becoming harder to find.

“I think in the last 15 years, especially the last 10 years, the automobile has been demonized a little bit,” Gilles said during a presentation at the school in December. “These kids grow up with a lot bigger consciousness on green technology and the environment.”

Joked Gilles: “Thank God for The Fast and the Furious.”

Although some movies and video games featuring cars, such as the 2001 street-racing film The Fast and the Furious, remain popular, they do not provide a hands-on connection.

“The passion you develop from playing a video game is very different from the passion you develop when you’re turning wrenches,” said West.

Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.’s global marketing chief, agreed.

“When I was a young person, all I cared about was cars,” Farley said at the same December event. “My son’s like that, but he’s the exception. When I talk to young people who go into design, they didn’t know Ford makes an ST. They don’t really know much about Ford.”

On his visits, Gilles tries to tell students that there are careers in auto design that are high-paying and international in scope, West said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of all industrial designers in 2010 was $58,230, while auto designers made an average of $88,630.

To meet the demands of the digital revolution and the rise of the gaming industry, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., created an entertainment design department in 2008.

Despite the new program’s popularity, enrollment in transportation design has remained steady, an admissions official at the school said.

Other factors have made young auto designers a rare breed: the changing nature of high school curricula; teens getting their driver’s licenses later in life; and the rise of the gaming industry.

A recent University of Michigan study found that only 60 percent of Americans 17 to 19 years old have a driver’s license. Thirty years ago that number was 80 percent.

President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, signed in 2002, required high schools to increase class time spent on math and reading, leading many schools to cut electives such as music, art, design and auto shop.

Since the late 1980s, major automakers have been sponsoring global research projects at CCS, said West. But since the mandated change in high school curricula, automakers have started to reach out to high schools to help generate interest.

In 2005, Detroit’s automakers partnered with CCS to sponsor competitions, workshops and summer and weekend programs for local high school students to expose them to hands-on auto design.

In 2010, West also began working with the American Society of Body Engineers to host events around the Detroit area for high school students.

Looking ahead, Farley remains optimistic about the digital generation. But he believes the burden is on the automakers to get students interested.

Said Farley: “I really believe that if we make cars that are fun to be in, interesting, great to look at ... with powertrains that are super-efficient, I think we can still attract a lot of young people.”