What % of Automotive Quality Engineers Have an Engineering Degree?

A client of mine on the East Coast needed a Supplier Development Engineer. This manufacturer is located in a smaller city, far from the coast. Not many people usually consider a move there, however, it is an excellent company in a nice area offering reasonably priced homes. The search was not easy. After a hundred calls or so, I was able to find an exceptional candidate who actually wanted to move to the area to be closer to his family. This Quality Engineer worked for a Japanese Automotive Supplier in the keiretsu of one of the majors. He spoke Mandarin Chinese, fluently; plus, he had a bachelor’s and master’s degree, as well as a Ph.D. (none of these were in engineering). My reference checks with his past managers came out exceptional, showing a person who is not only dedicated and experienced, but also brings a great personal ethic. Also, he has been at the same company for years, which is rare to find these days. This is no job-hopper. The candidate is still loyal to his company and is considering a move only for family reasons. I really enjoy helping candidates like this because the hiring manager, the candidate and myself turn into heroes in the end. I am jazzed to get him placed and hear the future accolades.
Not surprisingly, “Mr. Loyal, kick-butt candidate” interviewed well through the entire process for the position of supplier development engineer. The hiring manager told me that an offer would be forthcoming. The process started to drag on, and I got inkling why when an HR representative asked me: “Does he have an engineering degree?” My first thought was, “Why are they asking me this now?” It wasn’t very good APQP on their end. If an engineering degree was a MUST, he never would have been presented. Apparently, my information was incorrect. The HR representative told me there was an edict from above to hire only degreed engineers for the position. (Did I mention that the candidate was cool with the fact that the position also involved travel?) No offer was made, and the position remains open as I write this, a couple of months later.
Early in the interview process, not only was he promoted at his current company, but also the OEM of their keiretsu wanted to hire him directly. This, in itself, is not unusual, and I see it happen with some superstars. What was astonishing is that his current company president told the OEM, “You can’t have him. He’s too important to us.”
When he was turned down for not having an engineering degree (apparently a Master’s and a Ph.D. are not enough), my first reaction was simply, “They lost a really great guy. They passed on a proven superstar. He would have brought so much to the table with all that Japanese discipline and knowledge.” To this day, I never did find out who came up with this idea. I’ve got a pretty good guess, though. Sometimes, you will find a higher-up who has an engineering degree and projects their belief that, to be an “engineer”, you must have an engineering degree. Furthermore, the same higher-up believes that the engineering degree is completely necessary to be successful. I can understand someone wanting to have all the new hire boxes checked. I hear “the hiring rule of 25” all the time: “Jon, I want a QE who is 25 years old, making 25 grand, with 25 years of experience.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting it all. … Then steps in something called reality. Since we are in the statistics business, I decided to examine the world of quality engineers in automotive and give you some of our statistics, along with the more human side of the business where we all live and breathe.
I’ll bet that, out of those reading this article right now, almost every one of you who is a dedicated automotive-quality professional has two things in common with me: First, we all have a story describing how we all ended up in the automotive-quality field. If we were told, at 18 years of age, that we’d end up here … not only would we not believe you, we probably wouldn’t know what we were even talking about. How many 18-20-year-olds in college say, “I want to go into quality”? Not many, unless your last name is Deming, Juran or Shanin. For most of us, the job picked us; we didn’t pick it.
Our niche of automotive quality is a colorful one, filled with smart and dedicated professionals. Some had the opportunity to go to college directly out of high school, while many worked and studied at night. Some got associate degrees in areas, such as metrology, while many never got a degree at all. It seems everyone in automotive quality has a few things in common. They are great with numbers, procedures, as well as getting people, from all over the organization, to buy into the discipline of automotive-quality systems.
I am often asked the question, “What percentage of candidates with a bachelor’s degree do you place?” The answer, in 2013, is almost every placement. Why is this, since there are so many talented and experienced quality folks in the U.S. without the completed degree or CQE/CQM? The answer is this: Every client we work with is willing to compensate us only if we bring them an ideal candidate. I can’t say I blame them since I certainly don’t enjoy paying a specialist in my own life. From plumbers to accountants to doctors, I use them only when I absolutely need to. If automotive suppliers are going to engage my firm, they demand that candidates bring all the good stuff: APQP, PPAP, TS 16949, 8D, FMEA. In more than 80% of our job orders, the job description says, “engineering degree strongly preferred”. And, why not? Not only does a pedigree of an engineering degree bring someone on your staff with a more ‘technical’ background, but seemingly reduces your risk of the new hire being able to perform the job. That is, if they were paying attention in their statistics class God knows how many years ago, at 19 years of age.
Our own internal statistics for quality engineers’ educational backgrounds vary from region to region and from corporate headquarters to plant locations. It will be no surprise that there are more degreed and engineering degreed professionals as we go up the ladder from Q.E. to Quality Vice President. If we just examine manufacturing plants, for example, in states where Japanese suppliers abound, such as Ohio and Kentucky, we tend to find a MAJORITY of quality engineers and even supervisors (Japanese still prefer to not call Americans manager, if they can help it.) who do not even have completed four-year degrees. We tend to see folks with bachelor degrees in only the largest Japanese suppliers, like a Denso. However, there are plenty of American suppliers, both tier-1s and -2s, with quality engineers with associate’s degrees (or none at all) from coast to coast.
Corporate locations and headquarters in the Detroit areas are still dominated by degreed quality professionals. However, our statistics show that many of these quality engineers span the quality spectrum, from APQP/customer to resident/warranty. Most have degrees, but don’t have technical degrees. We see degrees ranging from Business Administration to Industrial Technology and almost everything in between.
When I do find the elusive engineering-degreed quality engineer, they are often making their ‘rotation’, as their employer grooms them for higher positions. I just spoke with a Quality Engineer (BSME) telling me he started in manufacturing engineering and then moved into production, and now he’s in quality. This is his next stop before management or operations. We both agreed there was no reason to consider a move, and I wished him the best of luck and cheerfully reminded him that I can help him in the future when he needs superstar quality professionals to kick butt and take no names.
Many of these folks will not end up being lifetime ASQ members or take the time to get a CQE or CQA. Rotating through quality is an important rite of passage for any degreed engineer with an ambition in manufacturing. I routinely joke with candidates, saying that adding the halo in quality, after wearing horns in production, is a much-needed break. The issue is that I will rarely place one of these individuals, since I place exclusively in quality, and they really don’t need my help, anyway, being on the fast track. If you run into one at an ASQ convention, you won’t see them there the next year, in most cases.
So, what is the percentage of quality engineers in the U.S. with engineering degrees? Our internal statistics show less than 10%. You read it right. We also discovered that, nationwide, our numbers show an even split between those who have a bachelor’s degree and those with an associate’s degree or none at all. Both of those percentages increase significantly (Find out the amount in a future article. … ) as we move up to manager/director/vice president. And, as you move farther up the ladder, you see a greater amount of advanced degrees, which is no surprise to anyone. The pyramid certainly does get narrow at the top.
What does this mean to all of us? My focus remains on the basics: Finding exceptional degreed quality professionals with great personalities and references to back up their performance. In my 23 years of recruiting exclusively in automotive quality, have I found that the degreed engineer I placed (ME,EE, IE) does a better job than a QE with a business degree? Absolutely not. Quality in the automotive industry is as much about selling as it is telling. The right personality with technical skills to back it up is the perfect balance. Since most QEs got their degree a long time ago and didn’t realize in school how important some of those statistics classes were, I find most top QEs do a large amount of study on their own to master this business. The folks with great work ethic, an inquisitive mind and a can do attitude will invariably do a terrific job. Unfortunately, the client mentioned at the start of this article lost a true superstar, and, to the best of my knowledge, is still looking. It is an excellent company, but the fact that it hasn’t found someone to fill that position yet doesn’t surprise me because the odds of finding a degreed Engineering SQE who will travel and also live in that area are definitely stacked against it. If I ran into such a person, the position would have been filled I would have never written this article.