I Was an Engineer at a Major Automaker. Here’s the Dark Side of the Job
In a past life, I worked as a graduate engineer for one of the biggest automakers in the world. I’ve talked about the good points of my time there, such as meeting new people and learning new things. However, there was also plenty to dislike about the experience—as you might imagine, given that I no longer work there.
As I mentioned in my previous piece, everyone knows what comes out of an automotive factory. But the public rarely gets a look into what goes on inside of an automotive factory. So, I decided to write about my experiences during my time there in the hope that they’d be illuminating. Whether you’re just curious or you’re an engineering student that wants to hear about the gritty reality of working in the field, this is for you. Consider it a dive into the hot, greasy, underbelly of the manufacturing machine.
That’s not just flavor text, either. The casting plant that I worked in was oily and dirty. You might have seen videos of pristine, world-class automotive factories turning out parts; ours was not one of those. On any given day, you might have to climb under a machine, getting yourself covered in coolant, oil, and aluminum swarf in the process. Factory-issued thick cotton shirts were standard wear—not because there was a strict uniform requirement per se, but because any clothes you wore to work were liable to get ruined on the factory floor.
It wasn’t a disaster, by any means, but the filth was very much there. This isn’t an outright negative; casting is messy, something generally expected in an industrial setting. However, cleaner factories often run more smoothly and are nicer, less dangerous places to work. That, in addition to a toxic work culture and low pay, were some of the realities of my old job.
On Paper vs. In Practice
Speaking of running smoothly, a real pain point for everybody was the plant’s uptime. On paper, we ran the plant round the clock, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Casting is very much a heat-sensitive process and dies take time to reach equilibrium temperatures to make good parts, so you want to keep the machines running non-stop, even across shift changes. Yes, that was the plan on paper, but the reality was often anything but.
The problem stemmed from the fact that a plant doesn’t run well without continual investment in upgrades and maintenance. Decades-old machines were held together with quick fixes and running repairs, and the dies themselves were much the same. Thus, things would break down. They would break down a lot. Then, because they’d broken down, we wouldn’t have made enough parts on a given shift. So to make up for the shortfall, the factory would then skip future maintenance windows in an attempt to catch up.
Predictably, this led to yet more breakdowns, more missed parts, and a senior staff that grew increasingly upset as the year went on. A supervisor exasperatedly exclaimed one day, “Some of us can’t even enjoy a glass of wine on the weekend because we must always be ready for another problem!”
It was a strange feeling being in those tough meetings as a fresh graduate. It was difficult to know how best to contribute. It was clear the factory was struggling, but those with the most age and experience were themselves short on answers for a quick solution. There were no good days so much as there were those with less going wrong than usual.
There were compounding cultural issues, too. When machines failed or started producing bad castings, operators and maintenance crews would often change machine parameters to try and compensate. For example, if the castings were sticking, they’d try increasing the water sprays or reducing the die closing times. (Engineers reading this are screaming right about now.)
This kind of approach is literally the worst thing you can do from a process control perspective. The proper methodology is to design a process to operate in a set way in order to make good parts. If that process then starts making bad parts, something must have gone wrong, so either the failed part of the machine or the process should be corrected. Trying to chase away the problem by varying the process parameters just means you’re going to make more parts that are probably bad in another way. However, tight engineering resources and timelines meant this happened pretty much every day I was there.
“40” Hours a Week
Perhaps due to the neverending production backlog, senior engineers and production managers routinely worked well beyond the 40-hour week. From what I could tell, many had done so for much of their professional lives, wearing it as a sort of bitter professional honor. Given the state of the plant’s operations, it really raised the question as to whether or not this was the right way to go. But to them, this was gospel. One engineer told me he once got in a huge fight with his wife when he got home from work at 11 p.m. one night. Rather than argue, he went back to the plant.
This working culture was pretty toxic. I was often congratulated on the quality of my work but chastised for getting to work and leaving on time. The amount of work I did mattered not. I was simply expected to sit in the office longer to demonstrate some kind of point, regardless of whether there was anything more to be done or not. The fact that I had stayed back late on many occasions to breathe life back into failed machines didn’t factor into the equation, apparently. Neither did my weekend overtime.
The plant had some weird demographics, too. The casting specialists were either all over 55 and had been there for 20-plus years or they were a newly-hired graduate. There was this huge age gap—as if the hiring managers had not thought to hire anyone new until most of the casting engineers were facing retirement. The casting plant was also heavily skewed male (as many are) and 90 percent of the women that did work there worked under the solitary female manager.
Given the rusted-on senior crew and the slowly contracting casting industry in Australia, this resulted in frustrating issues. Some staff that had “been there forever” were widely noted to have problems working with others. But as they were considered “difficult to replace,” they held their jobs and everyone else had to put up with them on a daily basis. The amount of anger and bile that bubbled around that place was truly excruciating. If you’ve ever had to work with someone that’s pissed off and angry every single day of the week, you know how draining it can be.
Safety was also somewhat of a concern. I was thankfully never hurt at work and I didn’t see too many others injured, either. However, attitudes, in general, were poor. Most concerningly, the safety manager stopped coming into work one day and was never replaced during my time at the plant. Rumors flew but the word on the street was that he had “taken his job too seriously.”
It might sound like a whole lot of fuss over nothing, but safety in a casting plant is of utmost importance if you don’t want to die in a giant fireball. When molten aluminum comes into contact with water, it can violently explode, often claiming lives and destroying entire factories in the process.
The danger is so serious that the plant banned disposable water bottles, soda cans, and similar containers entirely. Bring a can of Coke on-site and you’d be warned once, and walked out the second time. The primary fear was that something like a bottle of water could end up in a scrap bin, where it would get dumped into a furnace. The result could be deadly, so bosses implemented strict measures.
However, there were plenty of other safety issues that weren’t properly dealt with. In my time, I heard one tale of an interlock failing on a casting machine door, allowing the machine to operate without the proper protection in place. I even got to witness a furnace overfilling a crucible, dumping molten aluminum all over the floor.
It was often the case that you’d see smoke go up a few machines over. You’d have to make a calculation every time. “Should I go over there and see if they need help getting the machine back up and running?” you’d wonder. “Or should I be sprinting for the exits?”
Peanuts in the Bank
The ugliest icing on the shit cake, however, was the compensation. As graduates working in a role that required an expensive four-year engineering degree, we were paid an absolute pittance for our time. Granted, many careers pay less at the entry level. However, once a few of us found out that engineers that had been promoted from the graduate program were only earning a further $2,000 a year, we all quit within three months. We were being paid at a rate comparable to entry-level, full-time retail jobs for work that required an expensive four-year degree. “Insulting” was the specific word I used when I mentioned compensation in the exit interview.
The problem wasn’t just limited to new hires, either. A quick scan around the carpark indicated nobody was really making the big bucks. Things may have been okay 30 years ago when rent and housing were cheap. These days, it’s a different story. Trying to live on that paycheck in one of the world’s most expensive cities was excruciating.
As “professional” full-time staff, we were the lucky ones, though. Many of the crew working on the factory floor were hired as contractors through a “labor hire” company in order to keep their pay and benefits as low as possible. Other such wage minimization strategies were pretty bare to see, too. Much of the X-ray quality inspection at the plant was handled by a rotating cast of engineering students working as unpaid interns.
In any case, I quickly realized that my life was not going to be best spent in a hot, uncomfortable factory and getting paid peanuts to help make transmission cases. Given the low pay and poor future prospects, I left just short of a year of starting, as did most of the graduates that worked with me. It was an interesting time in my life, with experiences both good and bad along the way. When all was said and done, however, once I walked out those gates for the last time, I never looked back.
I don’t regret it, though. In addition to learning a lot of useful skills, I also ended up using the negative experiences at the plant as motivation. The job was rough, but I was able to use it as leverage to get myself to a much happier place—it helped me launch myself into a new career less than a year after I started, with a better life and a much healthier wage as my reward. Take this story not as a warning away from the world of engineering, but as a guide to making the best of a bad role and using those learnings to propel yourself onto a bigger and grander stage. Life is short and it’s important to know your value, lest you become bitter and resentful in a job you detest. I wish you the best of luck on your own adventures.
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