Written By
Max Brown

03.01.17

California Opportunities for people with Detroit experience?

When people think of a prominent city with a large automotive talent presence in America, Detroit is one of the first cities to come to mind. However, for the past few years, automotive talent has also been quietly congregating in California. Much like an electric car, you might not hear it coming up behind you, but it’s silently progressing forward and gaining momentum. So what are California opportunities for people with Detroit experience?

California opportunities from a candidate’s perspective

One of our job candidates’ biggest hesitations when faced with relocating for a new job is that if the first company you work with in a new location doesn’t work out, you’ve made a huge career mistake. However,  the number of companies in and around Southern California trailblazing the industry means that if one position in one company doesn’t work out, there is a wide variety of opportunities to explore.

Most people familiar with the automotive industry have heard of Tesla, Faraday Future, Karma, NextEV, and Lucid Motors. However, California is also home to a lot of smaller sustainable transportation startups. And more entrepreneurs are founding companies in this space in LA.  Some of these companies are founded by alumni from larger auto companies and are focused on individual commodities like EV batteries, ride and handling controls, and others. We’ve also seen significant capital investments from Apple and Google in automotive tech. This means that moving from Michigan to California has significant benefits to an employee’s career trajectory.

From user experience to employee experience

Other tech industries are now more open to traditional automotive talent.  I credit Tesla a lot with this shift, because Tesla has a reputation for having spectacular engineers. So, those engineers found it easier to change industries and progress in their careers. Once there were a couple of success stories, industries with a large presence in Los Angeles like Aerospace or consumer electronics felt more comfortable hiring automotive talent instead of just talent with specific industry experience. We’ve always known that the automotive engineers we’re hiring are spectacular. But an independent data point helps lend credence to our anecdotal evidence.

Beyond cars

Because so much of the focus now is on the development of next gen user interfaces and connected vehicle technology, many of the large automakers have opened tech centers in California as well. Obviously I can’t predict the future but Southern California is already home to a lot of automotive design studios. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more early engineering functions start popping up around Los Angeles.

The pitfalls of popularity

Of course, the elephant in the room when considering a move across the country is the cost of living.  Online cost of living calculators estimate that California is around 40% to 90% more expensive than Michigan, but corresponding salaries only being 20-30% higher.  Is it really that much more expensive to live in California? Not necessarily. Most of the cost increase comes from higher housing prices. Those prices, in turn, depend the type of lifestyle you want. Do you want to live in the city or suburbs? How close you want to be to the beach? What is your ideal office commute? With a little bit of research you can get a realistic idea of what your increase in housing cost would be, convert that into after tax dollars, then use that number to give you a benchmark for what level of increase you would need to make a move realistic for you.  So while the increased cost of housing is certainly a concern to be addressed early, it doesn’t have to be a roadblock.

What makes California unique in the auto world?

Automotive companies in California are smaller and less established than their Michigan counterparts.  This means, of course, that they’re riskier. But there’s also a larger chance for growth. Many times it’s a necessity that team members wear multiple hats, and that helps you grow more as an engineer, ultimately becoming more marketable in the long term. For people truly passionate about engineering, it’s also much more rewarding.

Additionally, if you choose to join an earlier stage company, there is a good chance you will receive equity. That gives you the potential for a huge financial windfall if the company is successful. The upside is huge if it works, and if it doesn’t work the experience you gain can propel you forward more quickly in your career, whether you choose to stay in California or not.