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Emerging Automotive Professional: Ford’s Laura Saneholtz

Connect with Laura on LinkedIn.


Getting Into Automotive 

What inspired you to go into the automotive and mobility field?  

My senior year I attended a Ford Motor Company information session before a career fair to learn more about the company as well as opportunities available for students after graduation. The presenter that year had an aerospace degree from Ohio State University, and I learned about how aerodynamics is used in the automotive world. From there I spoke with the recruiter and ended up getting an on-campus interview.

Did you grow up with family members in the automotive industry?  

I did not. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. Pretty far from the world of the Big 3, here in Southeast Michigan.

What interests led you to consider a career in automotive?  

A big thing that I was looking for in a career was a focus on hands-on work. As I went through the interview process at Ford, I was able to talk with engineers working in the aerodynamics department. Those engineers described their work to me and not only was there an opportunity for hands on work, but there was room to be creative and come up with new ideas to solve problems. These two things really sold me on coming to Ford.

When were you first exposed to automotive?  

My first exposure was not until my senior year of college at a career fair.

Growing up, what was your impression of the automotive industry? How would you have described the industry?  

I think my impression of the auto industry growing up was very limited. Before I was directly involved in the auto industry, I pictured what we learned in grade school, which basically talked about the industrial revolution and the assembly line and that is about it. Therefore, when I would think about the auto industry, I pictured a big manufacturing facility.

What college did you attend, what was your major, and why did you choose that path?  

I attended Ohio State University from 2011 to 2016, receiving my bachelor’s in aeronautical and astronautical engineering and a minor in general business. When I started college, I knew I wanted to go down the engineering path, but I was undecided on which discipline. Ohio State was great during the first-year engineering program, giving students exposure to different fields and offering many information sessions and contacts for undecided students to discuss their interests before deciding on which major to pick. Through this process, I found that aerospace engineering excited me the most, which was important to me, and that’s what I went with.

Do you have additional degrees, training, or education? (i.e., graduate degree, MBA, etc.)   

In the winter of 2018, I started taking classes at the University of Michigan – Dearborn toward my master’s degree in Engineering Management. I knew I wanted to stay in the industry, so I decided it was important to gain more understanding of the business side to round out my education. I completed my master’s in Engineering Management in December 2020.


Automotive Career: Then and Now 

What opportunities did you have in college that allowed you to explore or start your career in automotive, including any co-ops or internships?  

I was fortunate enough to have four internships in college at three different companies. Through this process I think I learned more about what I did not want to do, which in my opinion is just as important as finding what you do want to do.

In the spring of 2013, I worked at NASA JSC in robotics, which I really liked because it has a lot of hands-on work, but I found that government work really was not for me because it moved so slowly.

Then in the summer of 2013, I worked at Rolls-Royce in manufacturing on the quality of helicopter engines to ensure each engine meets customer specifications. While I learned a lot about helicopter engines and test procedures, I found myself not very interested in manufacturing.

During the summer of 2014 and summer of 2015, I worked at Pratt and Whitney focusing on bearings and thermal management. While I did enjoy working on the design of new jet engine products, I found that this job had very little room for creativity and hands-on work, two things that were a high priority for me.

What was your first job post-college? Please share any lessons learned.   

My first job post-college was at Ford as a Ford College Graduate (FCG), where I was able to do four rotations within Ford. This two-year program allowed me to not only gain experience in the auto industry that was completely new to me, but it also taught me how to work with many different types of people from engineers to finance to the creative teams in the studio. After this rotational program was complete, I came back to aerodynamics and have been there ever since.

How did you transition from your first job to where you are now? What roles did you hold along the way? What projects or opportunities were critical in this process? 

The most impactful role I had in my ‘first job’ as an FCG was when I was able to work in the studio on the Ford Bronco. This job exposed me to the creative side of the automotive world, which is extremely different than the engineering side. This job taught me how to communicate effectively and how to tailor discussions to those involved to include or exclude details to ensure understanding and create meaningful discussions.

What is your role now?  

I am an Aerodynamics Engineer. As a program engineer, my two main programs are the Ford Mach E and the Lincoln Navigator. I also have also recently done work on the Lincoln Nautilus and the China Lincoln Zephyr.

Describe a typical day.  

My main goal every day is to reduce drag on my programs. To do this I conduct testing in the wind tunnel on full-scale clay models of the vehicle surface as it is developed by the studio and other engineers. We then take this data and combine it with computer simulations of the same surface to confirm surface improvements for drag reduction.

After these improvements are tested and verified, we take them to the studio and other engineers to discuss and work toward implementation. That being said, my typical day is always changing. I could be spending the entire day in the tunnel testing, I could be at home deep-diving data and creating proposals, or I could be working through feasibility issues with other engineers in support of implanting proposals in a cost-effective way.

Where do you see yourself in five years?  

In five years, I see myself staying in the automotive industry. However, my goal is currently to move up into management. To do that I want to gain more experience in my department of vehicle energy management. Aerodynamics is an important part of how much energy a car needs to meet customer expectations but so is weight, thermal cooling, fuel economy, and more.  As such, to achieve that goal of moving into management, I see myself moving into one or more of these other groups to gain a better understanding of the entirety of energy management in our vehicles.


Advice for Young Students 

Knowing what you know now, if you could give your younger self one tip or piece of advice, what would it be?  

Make sure you have fun and don’t be so hard on yourself. I was always a very stressed-out kid, everything seemed to be the end of the world if it didn’t go my way. Looking back now, I realized that the pressure I put on myself was not worth it. Sure, you need to work hard to achieve your goals, but life is not always going to go your way. So, take things as they come and try to enjoy the ride.

Not sure if my younger self would have listened to this, but I wish she would have.

What advice do you have for high school students who are interested in automotive, but unsure if it’s the career for them?

Seek out opportunities for exposure into the field early and often. Many students enter college with very little idea of what they want to do and if they do have some idea, many don’t have a clear view of what that may actually look like. There are so many programs, groups, and professionals out there willing to talk to students about their job or field. By seeking out these types of opportunities, students can better understand not only what they are interested in but they can picture what it is they are working toward, which can sometimes get washed out in the stress of high school and early college.

What was the best piece of advice you were ever given?  

That it is okay to say no. I feel like so many times people tell you, “Say yes to everything and you will find out what you love,” but that is not really feasible. If you say yes to everything you will end up selling yourself short in everything. Give yourself a chance to succeed by focusing on those projects or groups that you are passionate about. And then if you find out it’s not what you thought, it’s okay to say, “Nope, not for me” and try something else. I wish I learned this earlier in life. I spread myself so thin in high school and early college that I forgot what I was doing it all for and I forgot to stop and enjoy it.

What do you love about working in the automotive industry (and specifically the automotive industry in Michigan)? 

I love the people. Every day I get to work with people who are passionate about our products and do their best to reach and exceed the expectations of our customers. Working with these types of people is inspiring and it pushes me to do my best every day and learn to be better.

Do you participate in any organizations outside of work? Or have any hobbies (unrelated to automotive)? Do you feel the work-life balance in the auto industry allows you to continue these passions?  

The biggest group I participate in outside of work is with FIRST Robotics. In high school, I participated in FIRST as a student and it showed me that being an engineer was the right path for me. Since I started at Ford I have been volunteering at various competitions in Southeast Michigan and have become a member of the Ford FIRST Board, which works to sponsor over 90 high school teams.

My experience with Ford has been that I have had no issues participating in any sort of volunteer event that I am passionate about both during and outside of work hours.