With Detroit In Crisis, Engineers Seek New Possibilities

December 2009 Vol. 236 No. 12

Erin Nelsen, Online Editor


As the major U.S. automakers struggle to stay afloat, thousands of engineers face low prospects of finding work in the industry again, despite decades of experience. Unemployment in Michigan was 15% in July, according to the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, and in the Detroit area it was measured at between 17-29%.

Talascend, a human resources firm specializing in engineering, cites the numbers of resumes posted by designers and engineers in the Detroit area in the past months: 5,134 for mechanical engineers, 7,125 technical designers, 9,438 quality engineers.

Grim as the situation appears, Talascend has found an opportunity in the market. The Global Training Academy of Troy, MI, a joint project between Talascend and Macomb Community College, offers six-week courses to retrain automotive and manufacturing engineers and designers to work in more robust fields. The first course offerings concentrate on the energy and construction industry, with classes in pipe and pipeline design, process plant design, and CAD certification. Thus far, the program has 49 graduates, and their prospects are looking up.

“The bias toward the automotive industry is that it’s pure manufacturing, people working in a plant,” said Jason Dawson, head of the Global Training Academy since its launch in February. “In reality, overlap between what an automotive designer does and what a pipe designer does is very high, at least 90%. We do the exact same things – we just call it something different.”

Dawson is confident that the academy’s students can be valuable to the oil and gas industry, including the pipeline sector. Two graduates of the academy were hired by Marathon Oil as pipe designers in September, and Alliance Engineering, Amec Paragon, J.Ray McDermott and SMB have also shown interest. Talascend is well aware that the American Petroleum Institute has estimated that the U.S. petrochemical industry would be short more than 6,000 engineers in 2009 due to retirements and other issues. Dawson thinks that shortfall can be made up with the expertise of southeastern Michigan’s automotive engineers, to the benefit of all involved. Right now, the only block to applying this talent to the energy market is the lingering effects of the global recession.

“The market slowed down for everybody,” he explained, but as soon as new projects and products are greenlighted, “I’ve got all the talent in the world here to fill demand as it rises. I can have specific training in different segments, I can customize it, I can make it flexible, I can expand it, and I can actually generate a new workforce for you to meet that demand.

“We originally picked pipe design because last fall that was a blooming market, and the word from our customer base was ‘We need these people.’” But aside from pipe and process plant design, Dawson says ex-automotive engineers can easily gain the expertise to work in power generation, nuclear technology and most engineering construction fields. And they have more than enough motivation to pursue those jobs, even with a long career already behind them.

“The auto market has declined. [Laid-off engineers] just don’t have jobs to go back to now,” said Dawson. Instead, most are being offered training in unrelated fields while the state’s high-tech green manufacturing initiatives focus on engineers who are still at work. The Michigan Academy for Green Mobility, announced Aug. 14, trains automotive engineers in renewable energy areas such as hybrid fuel and battery technology. However, the program warns initial classes are aimed at “incumbent” engineers.

Open houses at the close of each six-week session at the academy have drawn considerable interest from potential employers, according to Dawson, even those who were initially skeptical. “They come in saying, I know our market, but this market’s very different. After five minutes’ conversation with the candidates, they say, OK, that’s gone.”

Once potential employers’ fears are allayed, another aspect that makes the retrained engineers competitive is the difference in compensation between the automotive industry and the energy business. “These guys come in at a midlevel rate in the new sector,” said Dawson, but with extensive experience. Some have been working in the sector for 25 years. As a requirement of the academy program, they must also be willing to relocate.

The program does not aim to simply evacuate talent — Talascend has had a decades-long presence in Michigan itself – and Dawson wants to find ways to improve the situation for the Michigan community.

“We’d like to bring some of that customer base back to the Michigan market. Some people are just unable to move, whether because they’re upside-down on their houses, or because they have family, and we want to give back to the state,” he said. One idea is to train engineers who don’t want to leave as a design team that can take “outsourced” work from projects around the world.

For the time being, Dawson is confident the engineers exiting his academy will find success. “Their attitude is very optimistic. It’s their mindset, their character. They say, ‘Listen, trust me. If you want me here, I’ll be here. I’ll be working 24-7. I’ll prove it to you.’ There’s no doubt.”

For more information visit Talascend’s Global Training Academy: www.talascend-gta.com.

Comprehensive course objectives include:

  • Intro to Process Plant Design
  • Design Phases & Information
  • Pipe Manufacturing and Fab
  • Typical Fab ISO’s
  • Pipe Assembly
  • CG Calculations
  • Pipe and Weld materials
  • Assembly Asmt
  • Spool Drawing F/ISO
  • Valve Types & Applications
  • Self Actuated Valves
  • Valve Selection and Use
  • Isolation Asmt
  • Pump Selection
  • Pump Layout
  • Instrumentation
  • P&ID Symbols
  • P&ID Asmt
  • Pipe Routing
  • Pipe layout Specification
  • Pipe Racks
  • Pump Piping Asmt
  • Pipe Stress and B31-3
  • Pipe Supports & Hangers
  • Pipe Support Asmt
  • Pressure Vessels
  • CAD
  • General Layout Considerations
  • Plant Layout Specification
  • Compressors
  • Drums
  • Furnaces
  • Heat Exchangers
  • Distillation Towers
  • Reactors
  • Underground Piping
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