Advice on career direction

I need help! I am a middle aged worker in the Industrial Design field.
I been in the automotive business for about twenty years here in the midwest ( I won’t say where).I worked as a cardboard,clay,foam model maker. I worked as a technical illustrator putting together manuals,I worked
in a studio setting and in a prototype shop.I am trained in different CAD
systems but I have very little experience in it. There are alot of CAD jobs but they (the employers) want at least 3 years of experience.How is a person suppose to get experience if they don’t spent time in front of the tube?I have tried suppliers and staffing companies but they tell me that if they find a match with my skills and experience they will call me.Is there something I can do with my ID background? Can my fellow ID comrades give my some advice?I redid my resume’ and polished my portfolio to my standout with the best of my abilities.I NEED help because this is very depressing and I FEEL that going in the ID field have been a waste! I’m sorry if this letter is a little long and I DON’T want be seen as a crybaby but

You’ve got alot more skills than most designers already.
You know how to make, you know how to model, you see in three dimension better than most and you are a problem solver.
Do you really want to sit ‘only’ in front of a computer?!!
Focus your attention on your strengths, diversify and let people know what you are good at as a manager, developer, designer, etc.
Then hire me, my gig is up soon developing a product line for an upstart!
Perhaps you should think of a partnership, are you flush?
I’ve got a few ideas for you!!!

Good luck


We are in the same boat ABS, if by middle-aged, you mean 50+.

I’ve been in the design game since I graduated in 1973 and have covered most of the same areas of the craft that you have, just not in the area of automotive design. I’ve crossed, back and forth, over the line into mechanical engineering and “design” several times. But that was BEFORE the advent of 3d CAD. I’m a self-taught AutoCAD user which today means, practically speaking, that I might be able to be a civil or architectural draftsman, but there isn’t much room in ID. I’ve been self-employed ID consultant/modelshop for the last fifteen years.

I mentioned that I’ve been a consultant for the last fifteen years, but I didn’t say I was very successful at it. Most of my work has been in the area of prototype fabrication and low volume manufacturing, but not much actual design anymore. I live is a rural part of California with no “local” design clients; a one hundred mile business radius maybe, but definitely not 200+ miles. A three-hour drive, for a twenty minute meeting to discuss a detail isn’t very practical. Fortunately my wife has been employed in a management position for the last twenty-three years so the bad months (and years) haven’t forced me to close shop.

But this last year was the worst, so much so that I have abandoned ID. In July I qualified to enter a 6000 hour apprenticeship program; an apprentice at the age of 53! Talk about starting at the bottom again … I’m older than all of the other apprentices (old enough in fact to be their father), I’m older than any of my Instructors, and I’m older than all but two of the business officers in local union district.

But it’s all my fault; it was my boat, I launched it, and I’m at the helm. I’m where I am because, as a independent, small-time, designer I could not afford to purchase my own Pro-E, Alias, etc. And I don’t think many other of us could either, just to learn on (Rhino may be the exception). If you weren’t fortunate enough to get those CAD-hours while working (and collecting a paycheck) for a company that trained you, or if you were out of school before these programs came into major use, you’re screwed. “Training”, forget it; too expensive and does not provide the required number of hours of “seat time” to qualify one for a job.

I’ve followed the “Job” board on this site, as well as, Hotjobs,, etc. with much the same experience … if you want to be a “designer” you have to be fluent in Pro-E, Alias, Rhino, etc., or you do not “qualify” to be a designer. I’ve seen many design jobs open that I more than qualify for, with the single exception that I do not have 6000+ hours of Pro-E, or some other “required” program. I do not fit the profile that the twenty-four year old Manpower (insert ANY HR group) agent sees on her requisition and am automatically cut. I’m not able to get through the door to convince the in-house HR type that I might actually be what they want, and I’m definitely not going to get to see any design manager types who would realize my potential when they saw it.

Contemporary, Corporate-America does not want to pay for people like me, or you, to learn on-the-job anymore. Hell, they want to farm it ALL out to India. And do I even WANT to be a CAD monkey? No, but it’s a major requirement now. All the polishing and “Focus(ing) your attention on your strengths, diversify and let(ting) people know what you are good at as a manager, developer, designer, etc.” doesn’t do a bit of good if you don’t get an interview. Old age, and treachery, will always overcome youth, and skill … not this time.

So, the only consolation I can get out of all this is that perhaps some other major technical innovation will come along and put a lot of other designers out of work when they are at the peak of THEIR working lives requiring that they too will be faced with a steep learning curve, in a new profession, after years of experience in their own field of endeavor.

But, hey, I’m all ears, and invite comments from others, especially from those among us with experience past the ten year level.

I’ll always be an industrial designer … at least at heart.

I’m not sure I understand why a 50 year old designer feels like they have to know a CAID program to be employed… isn’t that what the Junior Designers are there for? With your level of experience I would think you could be a Design Director, and could be managing the product development instead of pushing the mouse…

That’s an interesting - sobering - story. As you say, maybe “some other major technical innovation will come along and put a lot of other designers out of work when they are at the peak of THEIR working lives.”

That could certainly happen to today’s generation of new designers: it has already happened to people who learned AutoCAD from a 2D draughting point of view, and may well happen to people ‘locked-in’ to a particular software method (e.g. traditional FEA).

I think there would definitely be design / R&D companies that will find your skills extremely useful: you will be able to complement their 3D CAD monkeys with practical modelling and building experience. You just need to find those companies - perhaps they won’t advertise through the nornal channels. Perhaps they don’t even realise they need someone with your skills. You need to convince them.

Even as recently as 2 years ago, I worked at a design firm in London where a new designer taken on basically had no CAD skills at all. But he wasn’t embarrassed about that: he was excellent at building innovative prototypes, both functional and visual, on a rapid timescale, and sketching his ideas in meetings and discussions. His work complemented that done by the solid modellers and analysis guys on the team; everyone worked together, recgonised each other’s skills, and it came out very well.

Good luck.

That’s a pretty common sense observation, but the fact remains a creative ID career in America today is very similar to one in gymnastics - exciting but short. Note the “creative” in there, which implies actually doing design work, not overseeing, managing, or evaluating that of others. In my own experience, creative employability in this field starts decreasing dramatically by one’s mid-thirties, at which point it’s time to take stock of one’s skills and experience and start evaluating the typical options, these being design management, teaching, going into business or switching careers altogether.

This thread is really a sad commentary on the real worth of design skills in this country in 2005. When such highly experienced designers find CAD skills the major impediment described it throws into question the real added-value our profession REALLY bring industry and business.

It is now next to impossible to find designers even in their early 40s doing design work, let alone in their 50s. The colossal monetary loss of experience for businesses actually pales in comparison with the much heavier loss this represents for younger designers only starting out, who have never known the lifelong rewards of having had a “mentor”, of learning through a close “apprenticeship”. Thre’s never time or money for that sort of “outdated” approach anymore. Doesn’t matter that young minds were trained that way for practically millenia.

This, in turn, makes for a lot of ID graduates who will necessarily learn the ropes the hardest way possible, repeat past mistakes unnecessarily, not to mention repeat what’s been done before, period. For every “new” product on the shelves today many consider innovative, somewhere in the world there are at least 5 or more previous iterations going back decades ago (when they were better done too). It shows younger designers today have little or zero knowledge of the history of design, engineering, inventions or the history of man-made artefacts in general.

(Have to run now, will be back shortly with comments and suggestions specific to the original question).