How good we engineers have it

How good we engineers have it

You may think we here at Engineer Blogs are “glass half empty” folks when it comes to employment and salary expectations for engineers (though really, the glass was poorly designed with too much capacity).  I’ve talked about the overhyped STEM recruitment here before. It’s no secret I don’t believe in an engineering or STEM shortage. I’ve looked at engineering employment over time and it doesn’t seem to indicate  any increasing demand or a salary increase based on a higher market value for engineering professionals (unless you’re a software engineer).

Cherish just wrote last week about engineering being a common background for CEOs. One of our commenters asked whether engineers need really be concerned with having more options beyond the engineering job. As a former non-engineer in the workforce, I can certainly sympathize with this perception. It does seem like an engineering degree is much more the key to a job and middle class prosperity then many other disciplines. But is that really the case? I wanted to look at some of these perceptions and some of the real numbers for engineers.

Last week the Commander in Chief himself stooped to asking to look at the resume of an unemployed engineer. He seemed as surprised as anyone that an engineer could be unemployed and job hunting. What the media attention on this skipped over was the woman who asked the question brought up one of my favorite issues: the H1B Visa. Since 2004 every single H1B visa has been filled up to the US cap.  Those include all the years of this recession and cover 65,000 basic visas, another 20,000 for advanced degree holders, and an additional overflow from those who are exempt from the visa cap (which includes Universities and research laboratories).

The Bureau of Labor Statistics just did a highlight on what it calls Architecture and Engineering Occupations (which does not include software or computer engineers). They looked at total employment among other things.

When we’re graduating something like 60,000 engineers every year in the US, awarding a total of 85,000 or more visas which trend towards STEM disciplines, and the total employment in each engineering discipline is only in the couple hundred thousand you can see why engineers need be concerned.

According to a recent Georgetown University study unemployment for experienced engineering college graduates is 4.9% which seems pretty low compared to the national average of 8.5%. But experienced graduates in health, education, life and physical sciences, law, recreation, agriculture, and industrial arts all have lower unemployment rates. When you look at recent graduates, engineers have an unemployment rate of 7.5%. True better than the national average, but not the guarantee for employment that engineering is advertised as. While engineering graduates have lower unemployment rates than those with social science, arts and humanities degrees the small difference between the rate and the national rate would seem to imply demand is only slightly higher than for the average college graduate. In fact the unemployment rate for all college graduates is currently 4.2%.

So what conclusions can we draw from this data? It’s obviously still better to have a college degree than not as the unemployment rate is about half the national rate. But an engineering degree in particular is no magic bullet to securing a job. You still better have a real interest in the engineering profession to get you through the inevitable downturns and layoffs (as Fluxor can attest to). I continue to think it’s incredibly short sighted to play up this idea of engineering jobs being in demand while not effectively training Americans for jobs we are happy to bring visas in for. If we had a real long term need we should be growing engineers on our home soil not using stop gap measures that I am highly suspicious are just means of keeping pay low. However, I encourage you to browse through the links and reports I’ve discussed and make up your own mind. I would be interested in hearing engineers and non-engineers reactions in the comments.

9 comments

While I agree there really is no STEM shortage, I still believe in the power of an engineering degree.

I went through my own period of disillusionment with engineering. My first 5 years saw about 4 rounds of layoffs in my company. I survived a departmental downsizing from ~40 to ~5. Today, I know at least one relatively young (BSCE 2005) grad who has been unemployed since 2010.

However, I look at it this way: When all possible degrees are considered, I’d prefer to hold an engineering degree as a stepping stone to another career. I have a BSME, but I have tried on other professional hats. I think it’s easier to go from engineer >> something else than the other way around. It might be unwarranted, but people always assume you are smart and capable when you have an engineering degree. It can take you many places beyond engineering. I know a few people who went straight into another field (like law, pharmacy, pharma sales) without working as engineers, but not one of them said they’d rather go back and spend 4 years having more fun instead of getting the engineering degree.

There is no doubt that the U.S. needs engineers, and that they come from STEM programs. They are the people who can handle technology and create products that answer today’s wants and needs. However, just because we need engineers does not mean we will employ engineers. Despite Cherish’s findings, most technology companies are headed by C-level executives with non-technical backgrounds, or who haven’t used their technical background for so long that they have forgotten it. Instead, company management is dominated by business and finance folks. They consider engineers as cost centers, not revenue generators. They cannot plan beyond the next financial quarter so they do not like technology project time leads, or the risk that research & development may not yield profitable products. Their short-sightedness has led to the demise of America’s world technical leadership and its overall economy.

It is no surprise that a politician like President Obama is surprised to read an engineer’s resume and then wonder why he cannot find work. Politicians, along with industry captains, university chairmen and economists have had those blinders on for decades. Businessmen prefer cheap over quality, so that’s why they push for H1B visas instead of hiring Americans. It’s also why it is difficult to remain employed in engineering for more than fifteen or twenty years. There is no shortage of engineers – just a shortage of cheap engineers. Even the H1Bs aren’t sufficient because eventually these hires realize that they need more money to live, so they ask for more and get cycled out.

The only good news in all of this is that the time is ripe for new technical startups. Most old guard technology companies are overloaded with unproductive business and financial people, so they cannot compete with a lean and focused technical effort. An example of this is Tesla Motors embarrassing the “Big Three” American automakers. Unless the big boys wake up and replace their management and bean counting advocates with engineers and technicians, startups will continue to eat their lunch.

As much as I would not like to believe this I do believe it is true there are to many times when people think that just because they graduated with an engineering degree that they will just be able to get any job they want. With the kind of economy we are in I find it hard that anyone could get a job straight out of college making what they expect to be making.

I am graduating this year from a B.A.Sc in Electrical Engineering, and I am very unsure as to how to talk to employers about employment.
Places I have applied either don’t reply back, or just send me an email telling, no to my application.

I think filling online applications, making resume telling your skills, and writing a cover is not all what you need to get a job after graduation.

Can some wise engineers shed some light on it ?

@usman I have multiple degrees, including electrical engineering, biology, MIT and am pursuing a masters in EE. There are lots of job postings, but with ridiculous demands — with 15+ years of very narrow experience that no recent grad comes close to unless you were already working for that company. No company wants to spend a cent in training, and when nobody qualifies for the posting, they bring workers from elsewhere in their international operations on a visa. The economy is also far worse than you imagine .. try reading zerhedge dot com. Most companies now force you to apply via a system like Taleo and your resume gets stuck in a pile so large that is highly unlikely your resume will ever be read by a human. Those that have jobs don’t get it — however, for many engineers, the next time they get laid off may be the last time they ever work again in engineering. I know 5 engineers with Ph.Ds that make pizzas as well as unemployed medical doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Nobody is safe. Engineering is a good skill set though, and it might come in handy when TSHTF.

Really, unemployed MDs and nurses? Isn’t there an MD shortage outside the largest metro areas?

I´m an Agricultural Engineer, due to the low opportunities I had to choose for a different direction, I´m studying a Master degree in Education and now I´m a teacher fortunately I teach Science and Environmental Systems at least something related to my career.

Greetings from Ecuador !!

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