Since 1994, Phares Noel had been sauntering onto the campus of Howard University and cherry-picking the best of the historically black college's engineering graduates for the Chrysler Group. But last spring there was but one student waiting to be interviewed when the veteran engineer arrived.

Miffed, Mr. Noel complained to the dean, who informed him that of late Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. had been coming to Howard's Washington, DC, campus three or four times a year. They had donated money and services to the engineering school, and both had nurtured relationships with his engineering students dating back to their sophomore and junior years. “So,” the dean asked Mr. Noel: “Why should I put my better kids in front of you?”

The ante has been upped in the recruitment of African American as well as female and Hispanic engineers. Last year, GM gave $500,000 to the engineering program at Atlanta's historically black Morehouse College. Ford established an undergraduate scholarship program to attract women into engineering at five Australian universities. And Mr. Noel flew in two engineering undergraduates from historically black Florida A&M University for job interviews. He put them up for the night and he provided them with limousine service.

These are only a few examples of the efforts automakers are putting forth to attract engineering talent. “Now, we're becoming a valuable asset to the point that people are bidding for us,” Mr. Noel says, “people are willing to go the extra mile.”

When Donald Goodwin was hired in 1971 as an engineer at Chrysler, there were three blacks and two women out of 7,000 engineers. “Today, we probably have more than 300 African Americans and women in engineering out of about 7,000,” says Mr Goodwin, who has risen to become vice president of Chrysler's scientific laboratories and proving grounds engineering technologies. He says since 1988, Chrysler's policy has been to make half of its engineering hires minorities or women. At GM, 57% of job offers made to engineering students last fall went to minorities and women.

“We're extremely pleased with that,” says Priscilla King, who herself was hired last August as GM's director of talent acquisition. Her responsibilities include identifying and attracting high-quality, diverse candidate pools to fill organization needs, maximize donations to key institutions and organizations and increase productivity of new hires.

Translation: 75% of the offers that come across Ms. King's desk go to engineering students.

Getting exact numbers on how many female and minority engineers there are in the auto industry is difficult. For instance, GM says it has about 16,000 engineers in North America but doesn't break the number down by gender or by race. A spokesman for the Society of Automotive Engineers says the group doesn't know how many minority engineers are in its ranks but he adds that 15 years ago about 300 women were members of SAE. That number has swelled to about 4,300 today. Still, women comprise a scant 5% of the SAE's 80,000 members, which points out there is still work to be done to narrow the equality gap.

It's been almost 40 years since people of color and women began joining the ranks of automotive engineers, but they are just beginning to have an impact as task leaders, program managers, department heads, directors and vice presidents. Mr. Noel, who is senior manager for advanced manufacturing technology at DaimlerChrysler says that today the top guns in automotive engineering are more comfortable with hiring people of color and women and putting them in positions of responsibility. If they don't, those female engineers and engineers of color can go elsewhere.

Diversity and the robustness it brings to the decision-making process has been the buzz phrase in the automotive industry for a decade. Automakers have said that they want all sectors of their work forces to mirror their customer bases. That's one valid reason why engineers of color and female engineers are in such high demand in the automotive industry. Another is that there is a severe shortage of automotive engineers in general. “That overrides any of these philanthropic reasons; business is business,” says Mr. Noel.

“Take the huge influx of foreigners that are coming here and getting snapped right up. The reason is not the color of their skin, it's because they can do differential equations. The sheer necessity of business dictates that you deploy the best and the brightest, if you want the dollars.”

It wasn't that way 25 years ago. When Mr. Noel began his career, automotive engineering was still the citadel of white males. He says the attitude was “I know you're not competent, so I'm going to give you this little job over here so that you won't hurt yourself, or you won't hurt us.”

Not any more. Surf Ford's media Web site and you'll come across engineers like Ben Gibert, who was named vehicle brand director last year and is responsible for Mercury's product development and manufacturing strategy.

Mary Ellen Heyde is vehicle line director for the Ford Windstar, the Ford Mustang and the Ford Thunderbird. James Padilla, global manufacturing boss for all of Ford, was given the National Hispanic Engineer of the Year Award last year. And Greg Farmer, director of Engineering and Product and Product Planning for GM of Canada, received a special recognition citation at the Black Engineer of the Year Awards ceremony.

Except for the perfunctory press releases, the awards and achievements of minority and women automotive engineers are, publicly at least, treated as fairly hum-drum stuff by their bosses. “The reason that you don't want to parade your diversity employees is there's a high demand for them,” says Mr. Goodwin. “If people don't know who they are, they can't come after them.”

Claude Verbal, a past president of the Society of Automotive Engineers, finds the change pleasurable and redeeming. Mr. Verbal became the first black engineer at Buick Motor Div. when he was hired in 1964. He says most of the blacks and women hired as engineers at that time paid the price for being first.

“I hit the glass ceiling about 1972. They weren't quite ready to have African American or female executive engineers,” Mr. Verbal says. “I have no regrets. We did great in our careers, but we didn't go as far had the doors been opened by people before us.”

An exception to that rule is Jim Padilla. As a Mexican-American he is among the elite of all automotive engineers. Mr Padilla started at Ford in 1966 and is currently group vice president of global manufacturing for Ford. He is responsible for vehicle production at 110 plants in 25 countries. About 80% of Ford's 335,000 employees worldwide fall into Mr. Padilla's bailiwick. Nonetheless, Mr. Padilla is an exception to the rule for those minorities and women who opened the doors to automotive engineering for their brethren in the 1960s.

Mr. Verbal retired in 1998 as a plant manager in GM's Service Parts Operation. He recalls that he transferred into manufacturing after a conversation with Buick's chief engineer, who at the time was concerned about how Mr. Verbal would be treated in the wake of his retirement. “I had survived for 15 years,” Mr. Verbal says, “but that was still an issue.”

When 24-year-old Kenya Howard walks across the stage at the Miss U.S.A. Pageant in Gary, IN, she'll probably not even think about her treatment at GM. Ms. Howard is a manufacturing engineer in management training at GM's Delta Engine Plant in Lansing, MI. She has a dual degree in mechanical engineering and business management from Michigan State University.

It's just inconceivable that Miss Howard could have entered and then won the Miss Michigan Pageant on a lark, as she did — which automatically gained her a berth in the Miss U.S.A. contest — while being a black female engineer during much of Mr. Verbal's career.

And it's also inconceivable that a black female engineer, during Mr. Verbal's day, could be put on track for management because that was what she wanted. “I don't feel like there was something extra special that General Motors did for me because I was a minority,” Ms Howard says. “My mentor was not even a minority. It was someone who knew that (management) stuff, and that's where I want to be.”

No one gives Lisa Drake a tough time because she's a woman in a man's world. In fact, today she probably hears “yes ma'am” more than anything else. Ms. Drake has a mechanical engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon University and an MBA from the University of Michigan. She is 28, and has been with her company for a mere seven years. Yet, she has risen to be the program manager for the 2002 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer. Ms Drake credits her mentor for her success. “Luckily I found somebody in the organization that can help me do this,” she says. “I was in the right place at the right time, with the right background, and people moved on and someone was needed to take over the position.”

Denise Gray says that her ascension at GM is as much the result of good fortune as career planning. Ms. Gray is the director of software engineering at GM Powertrain. As such, she is responsible for all of the software that is in the computer chips that control the engine and transmission functions of all of GM's North American products. At 38, Ms. Gray is a 21-year veteran of GM who started working for the company as a 17-year-old student in the cooperative electronics program at Detroit's Cass Technical High School. She has a master's degree in engineering science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University, formerly General Motors Institute. Ms. Gray most accurately says, “I grew up here.”

The experiences of Ms. Howard, Ms. Drake, Ms. Gray and others illustrate that influential mentors, the right track, the right job, company-subsidized pursuit of advanced degrees and rapid promotions are no longer for white guys only. The new rule in automotive engineering seems to be to identify and hire engineers, regardless of their color or their gender, who bring the right stuff to the table and advance them up the ladder as fast as their skills will take them.

Albert Ware, GM's director of advanced vehicle product engineering support, says a key to moving up the engineering ladder is being a design release engineer. That's signing your name on a design and saying it's ready to be introduced to a customer on a vehicle. “A high percentage of our engineering leadership team has had that ticket, design release engineer, punched,” Mr Ware says. “My time as a design release engineer had a major input in my ability to move forward.” It's also a function of changing times because back in 1973, when he started at the Cadillac Motor Car Div., Mr. Ware says, “I doubt very seriously that you would have seen as many, if any, people of color in a design release function as you do today.”

There also weren't many engineers of color or female engineers who could do back then what Mr. Ware can do today — hire other engineers. “Over time, as your leadership continues to get diverse, the attitudes around the acceptance of people of color coming into the organization is going to change. Let's be frank. When I look at a potential employee that I'm bringing into my department, I don't have the types of biases that somebody might have had about me back in the early ’70s.”