Final Inspection

Why Young People Shun Auto Industry


The difference today is automakers have stopped selling the dream in favor of selling the deal. Dream cars disappeared decades ago, and concept cars are merely production cars with the door handles and side mirrors removed.


Did you hear the one about the guy who owned a hardware store, but didn’t believe in advertising because it cost too much?

Months went by and sales were so slow he decided to throw in the towel and close the store. So he started advertising the fact he was going out of business to get rid of his entire inventory. Instead, sales picked up so briskly he decided to keep the store open – and continue advertising.

Automakers played a pivotal role in the development of modern advertising. Historians cite the advent of photography appearing in print publications early in the 20th century as a key enabler.

Newspaper and magazine ads could show consumers exactly what the machines looked like, and consumers responded enthusiastically. Automakers began spending heavily because they saw a direct relationship between ads and sales. Soon, every successful automaker had its own advertising department.

As the auto industry matured, its advertising efforts became more analytical and nuanced. Automakers realized they needed to sell more than the newest models in the showrooms. They had to sell the idea of personal mobility and the idea they were good corporate citizens. So they began using clever marketing techniques to reach beyond the print ads they placed in newspapers and magazines.

In 1936, General Motors built a fleet of modern-looking, streamlined trucks to go out and show America the engineering breakthroughs and scientific endeavors it was working on. Called the Parade of Progress, it presented these exhibits in an educational, entertaining and non-commercial way.

And it used young college grads to make the presentations. The public was wowed and millions flocked to see the traveling road show for the next 20 years.

That same year Ford built the Rotunda in Dearborn, MI, moving the building from the Chicago World’s Fair. It featured exhibits with names like Magic Skyway, City of Tomorrow and Hall Of Science. Some of the exhibits were even designed by Disney. The public went wild. In the 1950s, the Ford Rotunda was rated the fifth most-popular tourist destination in the United States.

Automakers knew they were really onto something and they kept whetting the public’s appetite. Dream cars were designed to evoke an extraordinary future that was just around the corner. Experimental vehicles, such as Chrysler’s turbine cars, were built as real-world running prototypes that proved automakers were at the leading edge of technology. The public ate it up.

“When I joined the auto industry in the early 1960’s,” an old friend tells me, “it felt like it was the most exciting place to be. You felt that you were doing something important and could really make a difference.”

Bankruptcies, Layoffs and Recalls Hurt Industry’s Image

No one thinks that way anymore. Today, young people shun the auto industry. All they’ve heard about are bankruptcies and record levels of recalls. And as often as not, it’s their parents advising them to avoid it. “Oh, don’t go work for a car company,” they tell their children, “you’re just going to get laid off.”

And so the auto industry is in a crisis. Automakers and suppliers tell me they can’t hire the talent they need. And it’s getting worse. As the Boomers retire in droves, thousands of good-paying jobs are going begging because Boomer children do not want to work in an industry they see as old-tech, old-fashioned and out of touch. Who can blame them? No one ever has tried to convince them otherwise.

It’s not because automakers have stopped advertising. Just the opposite. They’re spending billions more than ever before. “Automotive” ranks as the second-biggest ad category in the world.

The difference today is automakers have stopped selling the dream in favor of selling the deal. You get fine print, not a future vision. Dream cars disappeared decades ago, and concept cars are merely production cars with the door handles and side mirrors removed. That won’t do it.

Where’s the pathway to progress? Where’s the promise of tomorrow? Where’s the challenge to join the effort to make the world a better place? That’s what young people will respond to.

Whoever starts selling the dream will see their recruiting efforts improve. It’s going to take some effort, some budget and some clever thinking. But I think top management soon will see the wisdom of spending money on this kind of advertising, just like that guy who had the hardware store.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of the “Autoline” PBS television show and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.




Discuss this Blog Entry 7

on Aug 28, 2014

"You get fine print, not a future vision." -- good line. Great column!

on Aug 28, 2014

Interesting viewpoint. However, not only the auto industry is looking for employees. There is finally a recovery in the housing industry. It would be a lot bigger except there is a lack of skilled labor to build the houses. In the oil patch McDonald's is paying $17 an hour and can't get enough help as other low skill jobs pay even better. There is a national shortage of truck drivers. Is $60,000 per year enough to be away from your family and friends for weeks on end? Apparently not. While selling the dream is certainly part of the "compensation", salary, benefits and security are what will attract the kind of talent the industry needs.

on Aug 28, 2014

I do not agree that young people have no interest in working for a car company due to layoffs, parents, ect.,. It doesn't hold the same apparent impact on their lives due to their consolidation in metropolitan area's with public transportation and expensive parking. Cars are just a necessary expense for many people. They have to buy, maintain and (DEAR GOD!) fill the tank which can be very expensive. As a commuter, I'm well aware of it's impact. Also, it runs contrary to the "socially-aware" green movement. Which means that their peers don't get "car guys", which means that they will not be "car guys".
Also keep in mind how little involvement people have had with mechanical objects that they control: no tools, no experience, have the shop fix it and of course the automatic transmission - Ban them all! (yes, I'm using it as a catch-all bad guy). Dad's and sons don't do car maintenance any more because the plastic sheet over the engine looks like it's hiding something scary.
This cultural mechanical ineptitude is leading to a less skilled problem solving workforce as well. Just a thought.

on Aug 29, 2014

I have to agree. There is a lack of focus on fathers to teach their children (boys or girls) how to fix things. Instead a culture has been brought up that has no mechanical knowledge whatsoever. I was one of them, but slowly finding light ou8t of the darkness.

I wonder what demo Ward's means by younger generation. I'm assuming they are referring to Gen-Y and younger? But as far as not wanting to work for an OEM, I don't think that's entirely true. I know many people that try and try again to get in with an OEMs, but their skills/background aren't technical, but rather managerial/other. It's the technical guys who will always be able to find jobs with OEMs, but may not want them.

on Sep 2, 2014

Although this might be simplistic or even naive thinking, why don't they raise wages until the demand increases the supply of workers?

on Sep 3, 2014

Good idea, but there's a concrete employment cost ceiling above which bankruptcy looms for both OEMs and dealers.

on Sep 3, 2014

Good piece about history, not so good about a solution. It is always easier to ask the question. Big hurdle is of course the appeal of security and the "career" in selling vehicles. Both are simply not in the cards for a young person looking for a stable career. So why come in? Should dealers stabilize incomes similar to other industries? Yes there should be rewards for work well done, maybe in the form of bonus, but to have a commissioned based structure combined with the volatile trends in our industry leaves little doubt entering this industry presents a less than ideal long term employment appeal. We all know nothing starts until the vehicle is sold and over the curb. Should this effort be compensated with relative pittance or should we attract "career" people who know they will make a fair and consistent income to support their families? Just maybe your article suggests we venture down a different path?

Please or Register to post comments.

What's Final Inspection?

WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.


David E. Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

James M. Amend

James Amend is an associate editor at, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
Blog Archive
Follow Us

Sponsored Introduction Continue on to (or wait seconds) ×