innovation magazine spring 2012 - great expectations




automotive engineering graduate student with recruiter
Lawrence Tech automotive engineering graduate student Karthik Devaraj talks to a recruiter at a networking reception held at Lawrence Tech in April 2011.

Despite widespread uncertainty about the economy and high unemployment, Lawrence Tech engineering graduates have good prospects in Michigan in large part because the automotive industry is growing again.

That was the personal experience of Karthik Devaraj, who earned a master’s degree in automotive engineering from Lawrence Tech in May 2011. He knew that finding a job in the United States would be hard because of the extra time and expense required for companies that want to hire foreign nationals.

The native of India started his search more than a year ahead of graduation and saw the job market improve dramatically. He had seven interviews prior to graduation and started working in July at Hella Corporate Center USA when a position as a sales account manager opened up.

“Companies are trying to hire every engineer they can find,” Devaraj said. “It’s still going to be hard for international students, but for Americans it’s going to be a piece of cake.”

As director of Lawrence Tech’s Office of Career Services, Peg Pierce saw a surge in hiring in technology-related fields start in 2010 and grow stronger in 2011. When Lawrence Tech held its annual technology jobs fair in conjunction with nearby Oakland University in September 2011, employer attendance was 74 percent higher than the previous year, and the two universities had to turn away employers for the first time.

“The Big Three and Tier I suppliers were there, and there was also a nice blend of industries and companies of different sizes. Almost all of them had actual positions to fill,” Pierce said.

Computer engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science were the degrees most in demand, and there was an increase in opportunities in aerospace.

The trend that Pierce first saw developing in Michigan almost two years ago was confirmed by a report released by TechAmerica in October 2011 that showed Michigan added more tech jobs than any other state between 2009 and 2010. Job gains in key sectors like software and research and development have helped the state recover from hard economic times, according to the industry group based in Washington, D.C.

In September 2011, Newsweek/The Daily Beast ranked Michigan number one in job growth, and CNN and Bloomberg have described Detroit as the next Silicon Valley.

Michigan’s large technology sector was largely overlooked during the recession when the state’s unemployment rate rose above 14 percent. But a 2011 survey by the Anderson Economic Group of East Lansing showed that southeast Michigan was second only to Silicon Valley in terms of architecture and engineering employment, coming out ahead of recognized tech centers like Boston, Seattle, and Austin.

Southeast Michigan had the highest concentration of technology jobs in the Midwest, 13.7 percent of all jobs compared to the national average of 9.3 percent. Michigan’s other technology center based in Grand Rapids was second in the Midwest, followed by Minneapolis.

For years, economists have warned that Michigan was too dependent on the shrinking auto industry and faced economic catastrophe if the state’s economy didn’t become more diversified. While the auto industry has become much smaller and the state’s economy has become more diversified, the auto industry still remains at the center of the state’s economy.

“The auto industry still drives this region,” Pierce said. “The recovery of the auto industry allows suppliers and many other companies to remain in business here, and many of those companies are diversifying into other areas like aerospace.”

Engineers are in great demand again because the auto industry must employ new technologies to gain competitive advantages in the global market and also meet quality goals such as better fuel efficiency. But these companies have shed thousands of engineering jobs during the past decade, and many of the engineers who remain are approaching retirement age.

The result is a strong demand for newly minted engineers with bachelor’s and master’s degrees as the automakers and their suppliers fill vacant positions and create new ones. “This is a great time to work in the automotive industry because the companies are reinventing the way they do everything,” Pierce said.

In recent years, some Lawrence Tech engineering students switched to the emerging field of biomedical engineering to find employment in the growing health care sector, but they found jobs in the automotive industry instead.

“Safety issues and ergonomics have created many opportunities for biomedical engineers in the automotive industry,” Pierce said.