It's difficult to come up with alternative engineering solutions if everybody in the room looks alike.

That's the initial reason why automakers and suppliers are busy trying to identify and hire minority and women engineers.

The business case is that if more than half of an automaker's customers are either female and/or people of color, which they are, then those groups need to be represented in every sector of the company. One of the most important areas for automakers to get a range of views is in product development.

With that diversity mission in mind, DaimlerChrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. all have mounted aggressive programs to identify and hire minority and women engineers.

DaimlerChrysler has affiliated itself with Women of Color in Technology, the Society of Hispanic Engineers and the NAACP. Ford has created a $17 million fund to foster interest in science and technology at universities around the country.

"In today's increasingly diverse society, you can't maintain a leadership position with people from the same background, who all think alike," says Ford spokesman Bob Roach. The automaker has working relationships with the Mexican American Engineering society as well as the Society of Women Engineers.

At GM the story is the same. "The market is changing rapidly," says Jay Wetzel, vice president and general manager of GM's Warren, MI, Technical Center. "We're working very hard to make sure our workforce is representative of our customer base. We've stepped forward because the market is diverse, and it's just good business."

In a brochure used to attract minority and women engineers, the automaker proclaims that "... innovation comes from the people who see the world in a different way than everyone else. General Motors views things through a global kaleidoscope of designers and engineers ..."

Once women and minorities enter into the automotive engineering ranks, they need to be challenged and encouraged to develop their careers or they'll be gone.

DaimlerChrysler's Monica Emerson, director of diversity and work/family says: "We know that the best and the brightest people have choices, and they will choose companies that will not limit them based on superficial characteristics such as the color of their skin."

It's not just the Big Three that are working to create a more diverse engineering workforce. Suppliers and engineering support organizations such as the Society of Automotive Engineers are trying to draw more women and minorities into the profession.

SAE recently set a precedent for its organization by electing its first female leader. Rodica A. Baranescu, a chief engineer with Navistar International, now holds the position of SAE president.

Faced with chronically small percentages of minorities and women in virtually every segment of engineering, companies are going to great lengths to attract them to the world of automotive engineering.

Many organizations, including Denso International America Inc., a global supplier of advanced technology, have either funded or sponsored programs designed to give women and minorities opportunities to research engineering as a career field. Denso recently announced it would contribute $12,000 to help support two week-long pre-college summer programs at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI.

Sujit Jain, director of engine management systems and safety products for Denso, has long been involved in the effort to bring more diversity to automotive engineering. Mr. Jain echoes the thoughts of the OEMs. "We need to reflect in our employees what our customer base is."

Mr. Jain says Denso is pretty aggressive at minority job fairs, and he works to build long-term relationships with universities by speaking to engineering classes and faculty.

"Universities are not only the source of our employees, but the source of our customers," Mr. Jain explains.

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, only 14.6% of students in undergraduate engineering career tracks at colleges and universities are African-American, Hispanic American or American Indian. Only 18.9% are women. On the graduate level, only 5% are minorities and 17% are women.

However, Mr. Jain says women and minorities may not be entering engineering as quickly as their numbers are increasing, but says that more women and minorities are entering the field. He says women especially seem to be tackling automotive engineering positions.

"From what I've seen, the numbers are increasing. It used to be, 20 to 25 years ago, that engineering was a male-dominated field. Women have realized they can get their hands dirty if they have to and can do what male engineers are doing," Mr. Jain says.

Of the 251 engineers at the Southfield, MI-based Denso International America, which is only a small portion of Denso's worldwide organization, 26% are Asian, which includes Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese nationalities, 7% are African-American and 1% are Hispanic. And of the 1% Hispanic population 11 are female engineers.

He also credits the globalization of the auto industry with forcing auto companies to hire a more global workforce.

"We never used to worry about what was going on in Asia or what was going on in Poland, we only worried about operations here," Mr. Jain explains. "Any global company needs to address the needs and aspirations of people with different backgrounds."

Fewer minorities in the field also can be linked to fewer Americans going into engineering in general. Japan graduates 10,000 more engineers annually than the United States, even though it has less than half the population.

Many engineering fields, including automotive engineering, face a similar problem with few top positions being held by minorities and women.

Delon Hampton, chairman and CEO of Delon Hampton & Associates and the new president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, warned, "Minorities and women are essentially absent from the top leadership positions in engineering organizations, whether they be public, private or educational. How can we expect young people to come into our profession if they don't see people that look like them at the top?"