U.S. Engineering Jobs, Present and Future


Talk about stories that seem diametrically opposed to each other. Just this morning I read a Computerworld article in which the IEEE-USA, part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., contends some engineers are leaving their chosen field and taking non-engineering jobs or perhaps even abandoning the work force.


In its analysis of government labor data, IEEE-USA notes that while the unemployment rate for electrical engineers dropped from 7.3 percent in 2009's third quarter to 5.2 percent in Q4, the total pool of employed electrical engineers declined in the same time frame by 3 percent, from 331,000 to 321,000. Similarly, the unemployment rate for software engineers fell slightly from 4.7 percent to 4.1 percent, but the total pool of employed software engineers fell from 970,000 to 952,000.


What's behind these numbers? The lousy economy took its toll on nearly every sector. Some of these folks probably just hit retirement.


But I find it hard to mesh these numbers with stories like one I cited about a year-and-a-half ago, in which several business executives and academics from Michigan described a shortage of engineers in North America and backed it up with statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yes, I realize the economy has tanked since then, and the story focused on the automotive industry, one of those hardest hit by the recession. But could the employment picture have gotten that much worse, that quickly?


A perfunctory Google search turned up quite a few stories like this one, in which recruiters from Utah were visiting a Silicon Valley job fair in hopes of luring engineers to their state. One source from the Air Force said he hoped to hire 100 engineers from across a pretty broad swathe of the field (electrical, mechanical, aerospace and computer).


Engineering jobs are mentioned in this story about a high-speed rail system funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act coming to Florida. Based on my recent interview with Michael Balsam, chief solutions officer for Onvia, a company which tracks private-sector and government procurement information and that recently produced a report called ""The Next Economy: 2010 Government Market Outlook Report," I'd expect more of these kinds of jobs to become available in the next 12 months. Among the engineering-friendly projects Balsam mentioned: "smart" roads, automated toll-collection systems, smart grids, building automation.


An Airbus spokeswoman tells the Wichita Eagle the European company plans to add at least 40 engineers to a staff of 210 it already employs in Wichita, Kan. Spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn cites "a shortage of engineers in Europe" and "a pretty rich pool here in the U.S."


I realize a simple Google search doesn't count as exhaustive research. But there seems to be a disconnect here.


I also found a Forbes interview with former astronaut Sally Ride, in which she discusses her efforts with the Obama administration to boost the science and mathematics skills of U.S. middle and high school students and to produce more college grads with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors.


If the U.S. is losing engineers, as IEEE-USA contends, it looks like we may have trouble replacing them. In the interview, Ride says China annually produces about four times as many graduates with bachelor's degrees in engineering as the United States does. She says:

Even South Korea graduates as many engineers per year now as we do, and it's because this is really important to these countries. They know that to grab the future technology jobs or even just basic engineering jobs, they need to graduate the scientists and engineers.