carDirty, dull, and dated: That’s the perception many still have of the auto industry, but that picture is very far from reality. Today’s auto industry is truly high tech and offers diverse career opportunities, especially in engineering. From electrical systems to sound engineering, the expertise needed to design and manufacture cars and trucks is vast.

Vehicles are now one of the most sophisticated products we purchase. Cars are smarter, safer, and more connected – in fact, there are more micro-controllers in the average car today than there were on the Apollo 11 spaceship!

According to the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), the automotive industry as a whole employs nearly 1.6 million people, many of whom are directly engaged in designing and engineering the cars and trucks of the future.

If you’re interested in automotive engineering, there is a job out there waiting for you.

As a vehicle systems engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, one of the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, I assist with molding the future of this nation’s automotive workforce. I help organize the EcoCAR 3 competition, an elite four-year competition giving students from 16 competing universities the opportunity to gain hands-on, real-world experience by redesigning a 2016 Chevrolet Camaro.

That’s why I’m here today to offer you three ways to jump-start your engineering career:

1. Find an Accredited University

When deciding on a university, begin by researching programs with accreditation from the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). Potential employers may not consider you if your degree is not from an ABET-accredited school.

Accreditation should be a minimum requirement. Consider the quality and reputation of the engineering program alongside the cost of tuition – some schools carry more weight than others.

tunnelFor example, Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering is accredited, has a reputable name, and is an economical state school with competitive tuition. Taken altogether, this makes for a very compelling value proposition.

2. Realize the Value of University Student Competitions

Student competitions – like Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions (EcoCAR 3), Formula SAE, the American Solar Challenge, and Baja SAE – are great ways to deepen your understanding of the automotive industry while gaining the real-world skills you will need for the workplace.

Solutions to these competitions’ complex challenges cannot be found in a book, and the answers are not right or wrong. Teams must collaboratively choose the best options by applying engineering fundamentals and concepts to navigate the problems posed to them.

Engineering competitions are intense, but also highly impressive to future employers. Getting involved gives you the opportunity to learn valuable career and life lessons before entering the workforce.

3. Gain Soft Skills

Soft skills are just as important as the hard engineering skills that higher education will teach you. Being a professional in a workplace setting, interacting with management, communicating with your teammates via email or in person, and presenting engineering information to peers are all vital, real-world skills that you can learn via extra-curricular activities.

My advice is to take on multiple internships or co-op positions and work with different companies in various environments to learn where and how you fit in to the industry overall.

I myself completed two internships, the first with Mainstream Engineering in Florida and the second with General Motors in Michigan. Both internships provided experience and benefits that have helped me succeed in my role at Argonne. However, it was my involvement as the team leader for the Virginia Tech team in the EcoCAR 2 competition – and not my GPA – that really landed me the great gig I have today.

DriverGraduating with a bachelor’s degree will help you land a job, but it should be stated that a degree alone may not be enough to get you the job you really want. To land your dream job, you’ll need to distinguish yourself from the competition. For that reason, experience is vital. Get involved, whether through competitions, internships, co-ops, or extracurricular activities. Doing so will set you up for future career success, no matter what industry you have your eyes on.

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