From the dashboard to the tail lights, every aspect of a vehicle starts with a concept. Automotive or car designers are the people who create the concepts that automotive manufacturers eventually turn into something people can realistically buy and drive. Although the car design industry is lucrative for those with experience, all designers start out in entry-level jobs. These jobs usually don't pay more than $60,000 per year at the time of publication, although rates vary by manufacturer.
Car or automotive designers fall into the "Commercial and Industrial Designers" group with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau indicates that, in May 2010, the salary rate in the 10th percentile for this group was $33,190 per year, or $15.96 per hour. In the 25th percentile, designers earned $43,120 annually, or $20.73 per hour. The median was $58,230 per year, which converts to $27.99 hourly. These figures do include some more experienced individuals in lower-paying sectors and regions, but typically, lower percentiles correspond with entry-level pay, as pay rates tend to increase over time. Another source, the MyJobSearch website, reports that some first-year designers were unpaid in 2009, serving primarily as interns. Second- and third-year designers at major automotive companies earned $43,500 to $57,391. This corresponds well to the 25th percentile and median for the entire commercial and industrial design industry. Those in smaller automotive companies probably earn salaries closer to the 10th percentile.
The BLS indicates that commercial and industrial designers who work in the automotive industry may work in two separate sectors. The first is motor vehicle manufacturing, where designers are responsible for the general design of vehicles. The second sector is motor vehicle parts manufacturing. These designers may be involved in the general design of cars, but they concentrate on designing specific parts that will fit the overall design. Pay averaged significantly higher for general designers than parts designers. The bureau reports that general designers averaged $88,280 annually in May 2010, while those in parts manufacturing earned $62,710 per year, perhaps because general design provides beginning constraints for the design of the parts.
Employees Versus Freelancers
Some beginning automotive designers freelance between different companies to build their portfolio or to earn an income until they land a steady design job. These independent contractors often fill the needs that manufacturers have until permanent designers are hired. Freelancers can sometimes negotiate rates per project. However, these designers do not have a guarantee of additional work and therefore have unpredictable earnings, particularly since each company places a different value on a design.
As the MyJobSearch website points out, designers can advance fairly quickly in the industry if they work hard. However, in the United States, the automotive industry is suffering at the time of publication. In particular, General Motors is experiencing financial difficulty, cutting many jobs, especially in the Detroit area. Even in large companies, the number of design jobs is limited compared to other positions in the automotive industry. For example, according to the Car Design News website, in 2006 the ratio of automobile engineers to designers was approximately 20 to 1. Designers may have to look overseas for work when they are starting out, and those who want to break into the industry must create exceptional portfolios if they hope to land one of the higher-paying entry-level jobs available.