U.S. Engineering Jobs, Present and Future

Ann All

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 28, 2010 10:30 AM nemo nemo  says:

American citizen engineers are rarely the first who are chosen to be hired as potential employees of multinationals. They are usually the last choice of every firm that does not need employees with security clearances.

Look at Boeing: they deliberately outsourced everything they could on the Dreamliner, even though it cost them billions more and caused schedules to slip by about two years. Corporate managers automatically assume that foreign engineers are better and cheaper. It makes no sense for bright kids to become engineers because our leadership is predisposed to disfavor them because of their nationality.

Why should we tell our kids that it is a good idea for them to enter a field where we KNOW that they will be sold short at the earliest opportunity, even if it costs more money in the long run to replace them with foreign engineers?

Even Indian engineers who have worked in the US on visas and then became US citizens have discovered the hard way that US citizenship is now a liability rather than an asset. They were contacted by "body shops" who thought that they were still H1B visa workers. When their US citizenship was exposed, the job offers dried up.

In the very long run, all of the foreign engineering talent will simply learn how to manufacture goods and then start their own companies. The remaining residue of American corporate mangement will then become the new "cost center" that will be minimized by "outsourcing" everything except sales to foreign labor.

Feb 2, 2010 1:59 PM balor123 balor123  says:

Americans aren't going into engineering now partly because our math and science skills aren't very good. What current policies seem to miss, though, is that even with the skills they still won't go into engineering because there are better options available to Americans: law, finance, medicine, etc, where the pay is on average 2-3x better. This difference is causing a talent drain from engineering and America will lose its economic position with it. I don't think that raising the compensation of engineers is going to solve any problems as that will just accelerate outsourcing, which leaves the alternative.

Feb 27, 2011 11:02 AM jerry jerry  says:

It is so sad that as an engineers for more than 20 years and a father of two, I strongly recommend my kids with strong math skill  to go into Finance area with a math or engineering degree, even better getting an MBA degree later in their career. Constantly I complain about the "engineers" are just high skill low-level creature job. All the money and credit go to the executive, the management who acquires an MBA degree from top school. This country,the business people does not care whether the ENGINEERS are created in this country or outside, it just wants to make more money and the executives just want to make big buck. In this globalization world, things made from US or not, the executives won't care much unless the government is willing to change the policy to make them care. In this kind of environment, should a top notch student get a engineering degree from MIT or CAL Tech work in money making finance area.

Mar 24, 2011 5:18 PM Rick Rick  says: in response to jerry

balor123  says:

"Americans aren't going into engineering now partly because our math and science skills aren't very good. "

I think our kids math skills are doing fine. The problem is cost. Look what happened to the manufacturing base in the US. Once corporations could move the work to cheaper countries they did. The business people are only looking at numbers when making the decision to  outsource. If company A is saving $$$ by outsourcing, then company B, C and D follow suit.

I see news reports that the Indians and Chinese are getting 15-20% raises every year, while we collect unemployment or get 0% or pay cuts. Why would anyone want to spend 4-6 years and spend 100s of thousands of dollars to get a degree only to find no one is hiring american engineers anymore. Better to start your own business.

Sep 8, 2011 12:48 PM Reiko Sarah Reiko Sarah  says:

I find your blog very imformative. Many people can learn from your information. I have some useful information about jobs electrical engineer. I also some "jobs electrical engineer" on my website. Visit us at http://www.jobs-electrical-engineer.com and find out more about your needs.

Sep 24, 2015 3:10 AM Deirdre - Austintec.com Deirdre - Austintec.com  says:
Companies tend to go for overseas engineers instead because they are much cheaper and willing to work very hard. American citizens have a lot of another options and to get an engineering job is not very appalling to them. That is what I think Ann. Reply

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