A career in automotive engineering would suit you if you have a technical mind and commercial awareness

Automotive engineers design, develop and manufacture vehicles such as cars, motorbikes, buses and trucks and their engineering systems.

You will need to have a combination of engineering and commercial skills to be able to deliver projects within budget. Once you've built up experience, it's likely you will specialise in a particular area, for example, structural design, exhaust systems or engines.

Types of automotive engineer

Automotive engineers work across the whole product design lifecycle, from concept to delivery, but your work will focus on one of three main areas:

  • design;
  • production;
  • research and development.

Responsibilities

The tasks will depend on your specialist area of work but may include:

  • using computer-aided design (CAD) packages to develop ideas and produce designs;
  • deciding on the most appropriate materials for component production;
  • solving engineering problems using mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, thermodynamic or pneumatic principles;
  • building prototypes of components and testing their performance, weaknesses and safety;
  • taking into consideration changing customer needs and government emissions regulations when developing new designs and manufacturing procedures;
  • preparing material, cost and timing estimates, reports and design specifications;
  • supervising and inspecting the installation and adjustment of mechanical systems in industrial plants;
  • investigating mechanical failures or unexpected maintenance problems;
  • liaising with suppliers and handling supply chain management issues;
  • managing projects, including budgets, production schedules, resources, staff and supervising quality control;
  • inspecting and even test driving vehicles and checking for faults.

Salary

  • Starting salaries within automotive engineering are in the region of £20,000 to £28,000. They can vary depending on your employer, level of work experience and class of degree.
  • With experience, you can expect to earn £30,000 to £45,000, depending on your role and whether you've gained chartered status.
  • Salaries can rise to over £60,000 for senior positions.

Benefits can include discounted car/motorcycle purchase schemes, pension schemes, health insurance benefits and performance-related bonuses.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, possibly with some extra hours. Some jobs may involve shift work, including evenings and weekends. Positions within the motorsport industry may require weekend and out-of-hours working to support events and deadlines.

Once you have built up significant experience, you may be able to carry out contracting work and set your own hours. If you wish to take a career break you'll need to keep your technical knowledge and skills up to date.

What to expect

  • Work is usually carried out in an office, research facility or manufacturing plant. Depending on your role, you might spend most of your time in an office using a computer, or you could work between the office and workshop.
  • Women are currently under-represented in this area of work although numbers are increasing. Initiatives are in place to help women looking to break into the industry, including Women's Engineering Society (WES) and WISE.
  • Although the majority of jobs are still found in the Midlands, there are many smaller companies across the UK providing specialist services to the automotive industry. Many of the motorsport companies have research and design facilities in southern and central England.
  • You may be required to travel to other factories and plants or to conduct outdoor field work during your working day. Opportunities for overseas travel are possible, particularly if you're based in the motorsport industry.

Qualifications

You usually need to have a degree to become an automotive engineer and relevant subjects include:

  • automotive engineering;
  • electrical/electronic engineering;
  • mechanical engineering;
  • production and manufacturing engineering.

It isn't essential for you to have a pre-entry postgraduate qualification but it can be useful, particularly if it provides specific training or knowledge for specialist roles. To find out about available qualifications, search for postgraduate courses in automotive engineering.

It's useful if your first degree or Masters is accredited by a relevant professional body, such as the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) as it can help you to achieve the status of chartered engineer at a later date. Details of accredited courses are available at Engineering Council - Accredited Course Search.

If you have an engineering foundation degree or HND only, you may be able to start in a technician post. You'll then need further qualifications to progress to engineer level but some employers will support further study.

It's useful to get student membership with IMechE as it provides opportunities for networking, discounted courses and access to careers resources.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • an interest in motor vehicle engineering and design;
  • a high level of numeracy and technical competency, with an understanding of the applications used within design and production;
  • the ability to analyse and interpret data to help with problem-solving;
  • effective communication and presentation skills, both with colleagues and clients;
  • the ability to work effectively in teams but also independently, and to take responsibility;
  • good time management and organisational skills to make sure design projects and production run to schedule;
  • the ability to work within cost constraints;
  • a commitment to keep up to date with design and engineering technology;
  • commercial and industry awareness.

Work experience

It's important to gain experience through a work placement, internship or a year in industry, which may be part of your degree course. Many of the large employers offer opportunities and you can find out about them through their individual website or your careers service.

Experience can also be gained by getting involved in initiatives such as Formula Student or by volunteering. For example, if you are interested in a career in the motorsport industry, see Volunteers in Motorsport.

Employers

Typical employers include:

  • car, commercial vehicle and motorcycle manufacturing companies;
  • companies serving specialist markets, such as sports or luxury cars and London taxis;
  • design houses and test laboratories;
  • automotive component suppliers;
  • tyre manufacturers, accessory and safety equipment manufacturers;
  • fuel and oil companies;
  • motorsport teams, preparation specialists and engineering consultancies.

Look for job vacancies at:

Larger employers often attend university careers fairs or give presentations on campus. Most employers have closing dates or offer jobs well in advance of a start date, so make applications early in your final year of study.

Recruitment agencies carry vacancies, particularly for contract work. They include:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Many large employers offer graduate training schemes, which include placements in different departments and allow you to choose a specialist area at the end. Others will have structured training in place, which may be carried out on the job or through short courses.

It's likely that you'll work towards gaining either incorporated (IEng) or chartered (CEng) engineer status. These are internationally recognised qualifications awarded by the Engineering Council. Achieving them improves your career prospects and earning potential.

You'll need to be a member of a professional institution, such as the IMechE so that you can apply through them for the professional registration.

The process of becoming incorporated or chartered is more straightforward if you have an accredited first degree or Masters. You will also need to demonstrate that you're working at a particular level and have the required professional competences as set out in the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC).

Throughout your career, you'll need to keep up to date with new developments in technology and software packages. The IMechE has an automobile division that regularly runs industry-relevant lectures, seminars and conferences. It's also a good idea to read specialist press to keep you up to date with the latest news in the industry.

Career prospects

As an automotive engineer, you'll be able to choose from a range of career options. It's possible to advance to supervisory engineer roles and senior positions within project team management, general management and consultancy.

If you gain incorporated engineer (IEng) status, you'll tend to specialise in the day-to-day management of engineering operations. As a chartered engineer (CEng) you might have a more strategic role, planning, researching and developing new ideas, and streamlining management methods.

You could also choose to move into a related career area, for example environmental design. If you have worked a lot within creative design, you could move into the graphic design field. Teaching and lecturing at universities or colleges is a possibility if you have a Masters or PhD in mechanical or automotive engineering.

Once you've built up several years' experience, you may go into contracting work, moving between short-term projects. This type of work can provide variety, excellent financial benefits and the opportunity to work abroad. However, it generally lacks the stability and benefits associated with a permanent position with a large company.