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Mechanical Engineering Overview - PowerPoint - Podcast

James W.
Forbes, P.E.

Research Engineer
Ford Motor Company
Dearborn, MI

MS, Mechanical Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
BS, Mechanical Engineering, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Research Engineer involved with product, systems, and plant equipment design, plus testing and reliability.
"One thing that a lot of engineering students don't realize is how engineering really is a team sport, that any project is made up of the work of hundreds and thousands of people. Engineering in school is very much of a solo effort where you need to find certain key pieces of knowledge."
"Include a master's degree in their career-building plan. Language courses can be an important asset, when so many employers have overseas interests or operations."

Forbes: "I think there's a lot of talk about whether you'd like to work for a large company or a small company. And there certainly are advantages to both. With a large company, you get stability, you get structure, you get resources. You get peer recognition right within the company. With a small company you get greater flexibility, the possibility for maybe more compensation, but less stability and things like that. Both can be good."

Forbes: "I think that in the past couple of years, Ford has certainly become more international. The European operations used to be separate from North American operations to a larger degree. They're certainly very integrated now. I think that's definitely a positive thing. We interface more with people of different backgrounds, speaking different languages, from different cultures. That's really a mind opening experience."

Forbes: "There's a lot of career planning that goes on, and early on they ask you 'do you want to go into management?' 'do you want to stay in engineering?' 'what rotations do you want?' There a whole training period for the first couple of years. Most people who come into Ford will rotate through a number of different areas."

Forbes: "We have annual performance reviews and they, early on in the year, would establish what you're supposed to be doing. And then if there's a real deviation between what you're supposed to be doing and what you are doing, they'll mention it at around mid-year and at the end of the year they assess how well you performed. And, to an extent, that determines your pay raises. I think that's one thing to realize in a big corporation -- that no matter how much you achieve or don't achieve that there are only certain brackets that your compensation will fall into. So, if you think you're working ten times as hard as the guy sitting next to you have to realize that you're certainly not going to make two times his pay. That's just a fact of big corporate America."

Forbes: "They typically talk about - big companies especially - having a dual ladder. And you can go up the management path, and that's more of a supervisory role, or you can go up the engineering path, and at Ford they refer to that as a technical specialist. The two paths of the ladder will never be equal lengths - there are more opportunities in management than in engineering. But that's not to say you can't be very well compensated in an engineering path. The advantage too, is that the work might be more enjoyable. You might not have to take it home as much with you."

Q: Do you do a lot of traveling?
No, no. Some engineers at Ford travel a treat deal. A lot of the evaluation of vehicles that are going to be sold and replaced in the world; we have to drive them everywhere in the world. We go down to Arizona for hot-weather testing; up to Bamidge, Michigan for cold weather testing. We go up to the mountains in Colorado. Now, I don't actually do a lot of that. I'll take an occasional trip to a wind tunnel in Georgia, maybe, or day trips here and there. So not a great deal of traveling.

Q: What do you find you spend most of your time actually doing? Is it on a computer, is it working with other people, meetings? How do you divide up your time?
In my current assignment, I do a lot of computer work -- engineering analysis, using the graphics and design systems that Ford uses. Prior to this assignment, just a few months ago, I had a lab job where I'd spend a fair amount of my time down in the laboratory doing experiments and trying to understand how the various systems in the car are producing effects.

Q: How did you get your first job out of school?
Actually, I stayed through undergrad and got a Master's degree. I went six years straight. And when I was in the process of interviewing for jobs on campus, I was contacted by a recruiter that Ford had contracted, to find someone with my mix of skills.

Q: And so you've only been with Ford straight through. How many positions have you held in Ford?
I've been at Ford for six years and I've had just two positions.

Q: What about the hot topic now, we've been hearing a lot about it -- "telecommuting?" Is that something that is done here at Ford, or is that something that in your position you see for the future?
Well, Ford's very big and I've heard that we have a pilot program in process where people are set up with computers in their home. From a practical standpoint, I don't think that the kinds of jobs that I've had will ever lend themselves to telecommuting. They're hardware-oriented, lab-oriented, and people-oriented and I think you need the direct interaction. Not to mention that I work with very expensive equipment that I would really have to come here to use.

Q: How many people make up the teams you're working with now?
Well, depending on the size of the project, anything from literally as few as the engineer and the designer -- maybe two people -- up to 100 people for complex projects.

Q: What do you think the best aspects of your job are?
Working for a big company and working on a very commercial product, we have a great deal of resources. We use state-of-the-art equipment. We're really pushing the engineering envelope. So the challenges that we face trying to make a product that's manufactured in huge quantities, and used in an endless variety of conditions, are very interesting.

Q: What about a down side?
Well, with any large company, I think that the flexibility and the resources you have are the strength. And maybe the room for compensation is diminished a little bit. No matter how good my work is, I can only expect to progress through the pay scales at a certain pace. So you trade off maybe security and resources for compensation. Whereas in a small company, you could, if you make it big, you could be making millions of dollars, theoretically.

Q: Did you feel your undergraduate education and your graduate education well-prepared you to be out in the work world?
I think I was very well prepared. I had a very favorable experience with my education.

Q: Did you co-op?
No, I had one summer job at a jet engine facility.

Q: What do you think are your strongest skills, your most transferable skills, that have led you to go through the ranks, in a sense, and have some versatility in your career here at Ford? What do you think are the job skills that you possess that were important? What are the integral ones that you have?
Well, I think that a very useful skill for engineers is, fundamentally, a logical thought process that transcends any particular job you have at the time. And you can get those skills partly from course work, partly from job experience. But that's fundamentally the thing that will transfer the most.

Q: What about international work? Do you do any international work in your current position?
Yes. I've been involved with a couple of different international projects. I've been to Ford facilities outside of London and outside of Cologne, Germany. Ford is a very big presence in Europe and right now two of my three immediate bosses are from Germany, on assignment here. We work on European car-and-truck programs to a great degree.

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