Maybe it's those nice bonus checks, or the fact that the move to platform-team engineering really is improving job satisfaction. Whatever the reason, being an automotive engineer isn't so bad after all - at least if you work for one of the Big Three.

After several years of griping about lack of recognition, limited career paths and fighting with "bean counters," the 300-plus auto engineers responding to Ward's Auto World's 17th annual engineering survey reveal themselves to be a happier bunch today. Not as happy and satisfied as they were back in 1979 when we first began doing surveys, but better than in most recent years.

Most say they are content with their current jobs, think their salaries are "adequate," and a high percentage of those working for the automakers would encourage their children to follow in their footsteps. Engineers who work for suppliers are far less happy with their career choice, but remain relatively content with their current jobs.

More than half of all respondents report getting job offers from other companies during, the past year. While most didn't jump ship, it's nice being in demand, and it helps give a feeling of job security. Only a small percentage say they feel especially threatened by the massive changes currently rocking the industry, such as automakers shifting more engineering responsibility to suppliers and globalizing product development and component sourcing.

Similarly, few seem concerned about new technology such as artificial intelligence and new types of CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) systems stealing their jobs.

Now the bad news.

Although demand for automotive engineers currently is high, the idea that a dire shortage is pushing up base salaries and allowing some "stars" to negotiate huge raises apparently is a myth (see WAW - March '94, p.25). Slightly over half believe there's a shortage of automotive engineers, but when asked if this alleged shortage is causing their personal salaries to rise faster than inflation, 80% of supplier engineers and 74% at the automakers respond in the negative column.

So who really is in demand? Well over half say it's young engineers low on the pay scale and low-cost contract engineers. Less than 30% say middle-aged automotive engineers with 20 or more years of experience are in high demand. "If you haven't given up engineering in favor of management after 20 years, you're considered a failure," says a staff research engineer at General Motors Corp.

Not everyone is so cynical. Several manufacturing engineering managers comment that experienced, older process and tooling engineers remain in high demand - but only if they've kept up with the latest technology and have a special talent. "If you can tell when a curve ball is coming, you have a better chance of getting a hit," philosophizes one survey participant.

Others disagree. "Our company needs new ideas, not old baggage from another company," says the director of research and development at a supplier concern.

Other results of the survey:

* Supplier engineers are much more optimistic than their automaker peers that cost-effective 80-mpg (9.2L/100km) family vehicles will be developed by the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) during the next 10 years. However, about 25% of both groups say they still don't know enough about the industry/ government project to venture a guess on its success.

Most who say the "Supercar" won't make it cite affordability, performance and safety concerns. This is further evidence that PNGV isn't getting its message through to mainstream engineers. The organization's key goal is to produce high-mileage vehicles that will be competitive in performance, safety and price.

* Practical electric vehicles remain out of reach. Only 4.6% of automaker engineers and a tiny 0.7% of suppliers think truly practical, electric-powered family sedans will be available in the U.S. by 1998 when they are required to be sold in California as zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). The largest plurality of respondents thinks they won't be ready until 2004 or 2005, and a hefty one-fourth concludes they'll never fly.

* The platform team concept gets high grades overall for improving quality, production efficiencies and engineering job satisfaction, at least among Big Three engineers. Suppliers are more ambivalent on the job-satisfaction aspects of teamwork. Both groups make it clear that platform teams aren't a one-shot deal, though, and say good teams can migrate to new platforms and projects.

* Most engineers don't worry about losing their jobs due to the trend of shifting more engineering and product-development responsibility from automakers to suppliers. However, there's considerable concern - especially among automaker engineers - that their companies may lose control of important core technologies. "Engineers need to see the whole picture. Outsiders can't do this," says a systems engineer at GM's EDS subsidiary.

One engineer who isn't worried over potential technology loss offers a scary reason why: Automaker engineers will never fully turn over core technology, even if they're supposed to, he says. A supplier project engineer puts it this way: "OEM engineers withhold a lot of information from supplier engineers regarding real-world performance. Many supplier engineers do not understand part function/performance outside the laboratory, and many OEMs do not understand part behavior off the vehicle. As long as there is an information gap, the OEMs will not lose core capabilities."

* The continuing practice of giving older engineers early retirement and then hiring them back as lower-cost contract engineers is a growing sore spot among full-timers. Two-thirds or more report that some workers in their organizations are hire-backs, yet only 11% at OEMs and 8% at suppliers say it's a positive trend. Some acknowledge these "double-dippers" are valuable sources of information, but more feel like this OEM engineer: "We need to get rid of the old paradigms, and these are the same people and same attitudes."

* Enthusiasm for "robust" as an engineering buzzword is anything but robust. Most definitions of "robustness" refer to engineering designs that are flexible, durable and easily manufactured, yet not over-engineered with too much cost or weight. That's just good, basic engineering, and it shouldn't be bastardized with a slick buzzword that will go out of style, complain many critics. "In another year it will be on the slag heap with DFA (design for assembly), JIT (Just-in-time production), etc.," a new-product development supervisor grouses in last year's survey. Well, it's still around, but support continues to flag, especially among suppliers.

Why the apparent turnaround in the attitude of OEM engineers toward their careers? It could be a statistical quirk, but the strong differential between OEM and supplier attitudes suggests record Big Three profits in 1994 and attendant profit-sharing bonuses - at least at Ford and Chrysler - have contributed greatly to a warmer climate in the ranks.

About 65% of OEM engineers say they'd be an auto engineer again if they had the chance to do it over, and only 21% say they'd never go into engineering again if given a second chance.

Compare that with the supplier results, where only 39% would do it over and 36% say they'd go into another field. Last year only 58% of automaker engineers said they'd become engineers given a second chance. But on the supplier side, career dissatisfaction seems to be mounting: Even fewer would repeat their career choice this year than last. Compare that to 1979, when 72% of OEM participants thought auto engineering was the best career choice.

The same schism between OEM and supplier attitudes is apparent when engineers advise their children on choosing a career. Many respondents say they encourage their children to make their own choices, but right now OEMs seem to be talking the job up a lot more than their counterparts at suppliers. Only half of the latter say they'd encourage their children to follow in their footsteps, while 68% say so at the OEMs.

Ironically, many OEM engineers comment that their children likely would find better engineering jobs and opportunities at supplier companies. "Lots of opportunities with suppliers with excellent pay and benefits," says a GM system manager. Numerous Chrysler engineers make similar comments. Go figure.

Not all supplier engineers are bummed out, of course. "I did a stint at GM. If you're sharp and ambitious, there is more challenge and fun at smaller companies," says a senior project engineer at Walbro Automotive Corp.

One thing is clear: Suppliers are the companies on the prowl for new hires. A strong 68% of the job queries OEM engineers receive come from supplier companies, and 64% of engineers at supplier companies get job feelers from other vendors.

Automakers are shifting engineering responsibilities to their suppliers, but are their engineers moving with the work? WAW's survey suggests it's not happening on a grand scale. Almost 85% of supplier respondents say OEM engineering staffs are getting smaller while supplier staffs are getting larger, at least "to some extent." But more than 65% say suppliers are hiring new engineers out of college or contract engineers in favor of OEM engineers.

Why? Besides obvious questions about salary and benefit levels, the largest plurality of engineers currently seem quite happy where they are: 58% at OEMs and 54% at suppliers. Only slightly over 10% from either group would rather be working at the most popular alternative: Chrysler.

You wouldn't guess everyone was so happy by reading some survey comments. Most likely it's simply a case of the grass looking greener someplace else. Even OEM engineers who say they're content comment that there seems to be better opportunities at suppliers. Many suppliers, of course, say the reverse. "I'm happy where I am, but I believe Chrysler has the highest potential to become a world-class employer," says a division quality manager at a major automotive electronics component supplier. "I love working for Ford, but wow! Look at those profit-sharing checks at Chrysler," says a Ford engineer.

Other highlights:

* The shift to global product development at Ford, GM, and other OEMs is leading to engineering responsibilities being divvied up much differently in the future worldwide. Is this a positive trend for OEM engineers? Relatively few think it has negative implications, but very high percentages (46% at suppliers and 35% at OEMs) say they really don't know what the impact will be. The same is true of how these changes will affect engineering staffing levels. Many think it will change, but they don't know how. "The key here is how management provides leadership," says a GM program manager.

* Despite big profits at both OEMs and many suppliers, cost-cutting initiatives still are holding back staff sizes - and rubbing some engineers the wrong way. But the largest percentage is not overly concerned, at least not now. More than 60% of both respondent groups say cost-cutting has an impact "to some extent" on engineering staff sizes, but only about 20% say it's having a "large impact." That's down from two years ago when nearly 30% said the fiscal knife was slashing staffs significantly.

* Global sourcing of components obviously is affecting both supplier and OEM engineers, but again the largest number in both groups say the effects so far are relatively moderate. However, some already are fretting about more travel and longer hours.

* Taken individually, cost-cutting concepts such as commonizing components, holding down staff sizes, squeezing supplier margins, hiring contract engineers and globally sourcing components - and many others - aren't viewed all that negatively. But put them all together and a high percentage of engineers are worried that these converging factors will hurt engineering quality - at least somewhat. Only 37% of OEMs and 31% of suppliers agree with one OEM engineer who says that "efficiencies can be achieved without any quality impact." Instead, most echo an engineering supervisor at Ford who complains: "So much more is being done with so much less in record time, quality has to suffer."

"Quality may be free, but reliability is not!" adds a quality manager at an automotive electronics supplier.