MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Despite some of the gloom at this year's show, the industry is hoping to rekindle car lovers' passion, a passion driven by great design. But for designers, it's not a good time to break into the industry, as Michigan Radio's Dustin Dwyer reports.
DUSTIN DWYER: To become an automobile designer, you have to have a deep love for cars, a love so deep you'll work long hours, evenings, weekends, drawing lines over and over until you get it just right. You'll turn those drawings into models made out of foam, and you'll sand those models like a maniac.
(Soundbite of sanding)
Mr. PHILIP MUSCAT (Automotive Design Student, College for Creative Studies): I heard stories about people wearing their skin down and, like, little pieces - seeps of blood coming through it.
DWYER: Philip Muscat is at work in the automotive design studio at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. He is covered in faint-blue dust from a foam model that he and his fellow students have been sanding for too long now.
Mr. MUSCAT: How long have we've been sanding, Andrew? Probably a couple of days, three days now? Just constantly, 10, 12 hours a day.
DWYER: Yeah, it takes a deep love of cars to do this job. It also takes talent. The College for Creative Studies, or CCS, is one of the top auto-design schools in the country, with the kind of close connections to the industry that help its students get jobs. But out of 50 students admitted into the program, only about 10 percent or so can expect auto-industry jobs when they graduate; that's five people in an average year. And this year, there might not be any jobs. Dong Tran is a senior. He grew up in Vietnam, where he says most people drove mopeds or rode bicycles; seeing a car was rare.
Mr. DONG TRAN (Automotive Design Student, College of Creative Studies): I saw one because my grandpa drove a taxi for the presidential-elect in Vietnam. And when I saw that, I fell in love with the car, and it's been like that ever since.
DWYER: After three and a half years at CCS, Tran has built up an impressive portfolio. He's interned with some of the best companies in the business: Toyota, General Motors and BMW. But in today's market, he says that might not be enough. So, he might have to design something other than cars.
Mr. TRAN: I really want an automotive job, but I'm considering other options. I mean, product(ph) is an option, you know, transportation, mass transit, motorcycles an option, boats.
DWYER: But cars are your passion?
Mr. TRAN: Yes, definitely. So, I cross my finger and hope I get something in May.
DWYER: And it helps that Tran has two models on display here at the Detroit Auto Show. Usually, CCS students have a space in the Cobo Hall basement during the show. This year, they're on the main floor. While that means more exposure, it won't necessarily mean a job. Jim Hall once worked as an engineer in the design department at GM. At the auto show, he leads me away from the CCS booth toward the Lexus stand, where he says we can find a quiet place to talk.
(Soundbite of car door closing)
DWYER: And here, shut inside a Lexus GS 450H hybrid, Hall confirms what students like Tran already fear.
Mr. JIM HALL (Former Engineer, GM Design Department): It's going to be tough for them finding jobs, actually, on a global basis, for probably the next two years.
DWYER: Hall says while the auto companies have been shedding jobs, they've tried to avoid cutting their design staffs because those jobs were too important to lose. So, right now, there are no open positions. Hall says many of the students who grew up with that deep love for cars will, indeed, end up designing something other than cars. But for some, that just won't cut it.
Mr. HALL: If you want to draw cars, if you've got gasoline in your blood, the only thing that's going to satisfy that is drawing cars.
(Soundbite of sanding)
DWYER: Or sanding down foam models of cars. For NPR news, I'm Dustin Dwyer in Detroit.