I typed in the words "engineering career" on America Online one day last month and hit GO. The search engine found 173 matching categories and 3,635 matching Web sites. Within those parameters lay the reason for the shortage of automotive engineers.

The number of experienced engineers and the number of students pursuing engineering careers has not gone down over the years. But the number of companies looking for engineers has skyrocketed. Thus, the supply of engineers is not keeping pace with the growing demand.

"It's more difficult than ever to attract engineers," says Harry Jones, director of human resources in Ford Motor Co.'s product development section. "E ngineers have a lot of options."

Indeed, the explosion in home electronics, cable television, computers, computer software, electronic commerce and the Web sites on which it is conducted has placed a premium on the guys who were derisively called nerds not many years ago.

The average salary for a manufacturing engineer with a year's experience in 1999 was $45,422. That's up by $6,232 - a 16% hike - since 1996. But sometimes it takes more than just money to lure and keep engineers.

To give itself a leg up on the competition Interwoven Inc., a Sunnyvale, CA, company that writes software for e-commerce companies, offered successful applicants BMW Z3 roadsters last month as a signing bonus. Those are the types of inducements automakers are competing against. And keeping pace with those kinds of offers has engineering salaries in the auto industry going through the roof.

"We're definitely paying more," says Jay Wetzel, vice president and general manager of General Motors' Technical Center in Warren, MI.

Salaries have gone up so much that neither Messrs. Jones or Wetzel would give a broad general percentage of how much more their companies pay to hire any kind of engineer today versus five years ago. But Mr. Wetzel says on top of experience, part of the salary equation for incoming engineers at GM is a prediction of what their "extra special" contribution might be to the automaker.

Even engineers with no job experience are being coddled. Automakers used to take months to hire engineering graduates through their college recruiting programs; now it takes days.

"We'll make them an offer right there on the spot," says Ty Fouchey, human resources manager at GM's technical center. "They've got a written offer within seven to 10 days."

Last year, GM hired 500 engineers with at least five years of experience and 300 engineering school grads. Ford hired 400 engineers with at least five years of experience and 170 engineering school graduates.

Recruiting college graduates in engineering is now a global undertaking. GM, for instance, has eight engineering centers outside of the United States and three vehicle integration, development and validation centers.

And as diversity spreads across corporate America, its importance is not lost on the automakers in their engineering recruiting programs. "We try to foster relationships with universities to help support the educational development of students and women and minorities, particularly in the technical fields," says Monica Emerson, director of diversity at DaimlerChrysler's North American operations.

At Ford the highest demand is for mechanical and electrical engineers. "Most of our systems are mechanical," says Mr. Jones. "But they're controlled by electronics." So a field that's coming into prominence is system engineering.

"There is a growing convergence of those disciplines, " adds Mr. Jones. "Systems experience is a new type of engineering, from the standpoint of multiple components."

Drive by-wire is a good example of an electrical/mechanical system. Electrical pulses may tell the front wheels to turn, but it will be mechanical components that actually make them turn.

Obviously, virtual engineering is another hot field in the automotive industry. Computers may be able to simulate test crashes on a computer screen. But they can't do it without an enormous amount of data, and that is input by engineers. What's more, data taken from a virtual reality crash test must be analyzed by engineers.

Simulations, virtual test tracks, virtual factories, virtual crash tests and the computational techniques to record all of it require engineering expertise, says Mr. Wetzel. What's more, he adds that all the new gadgets in cars today from phones, electrical outlets, navigation systems to CD players, video screens, vehicle diagnostic systems, air conditioned seats and heated side-view mirrors require all kinds of electrical controls.

And with automakers looking to invent new categories of vehicles to attract younger buyers, there's a premium for that rare engineer who can step outside the box and be an unconventional thinker.

At GM, the mandate is that 50% of the automaker's future vehicles will be something other than a car or a light truck. "We're looking for innovative vehicles that will create new segments," says Mr. Wetzel. "This is a good time to be an engineer."

It's hard to argue with that observation.