Are Engineers Really In Demand?

A look at unemployment stats shows that some engineers are much better off than others

10 February 2012

I frequently hear people say that engineers are in great demand, despite the fact that unemployment rates remain high. Some reports even say that engineers are in such high demand that companies can’t find enough of them. I’m skeptical about how true such statements are.

On the one hand, there are thousands of open positions posted on the IEEE Job Site. But based on personal experience, I can’t help but wonder what kinds of engineers are in demand.

I have several family members and friends who are engineers struggling in this economy. One relative—a systems engineer—has been out of work for more than two years, despite having several years of experience and two graduate degrees. A friend who is a mechanical engineer and graduated two years ago still hasn’t found a job. Another friend, an industrial engineer, kept his job while all the other engineers at his company were laid off due to job elimination or outsourcing. So just what kinds of engineers are  “in demand?”

A Washington Post article published earlier this week examined that question. The Post fact-checked U.S. president Barack Obama’s recent statements during a Google Plus ‘hangout’ session.

During the event, a woman asked the president why the government has extended and continues to issue H-1B visas when engineers such as her husband can’t find jobs. The president said that although not all engineering fields have equal demand at the moment, industry experts have advised him there are not enough highly skilled engineers for work in the high-tech domain. He added that “there’s a huge demand around this country for engineers,” and “…where you’re seeing a lot of specialized demand is in engineering that’s related to the high-tech industries.” But when the woman said that her husband is a semiconductor engineer—one of the supposedly in-demand positions—the president was surprised.

What do these industry experts mean by highly skilled? Isn’t engineering, by definition, a field that requires advanced skills for the “high-tech domain?” So are these industry experts saying there simply aren’t enough engineers in general? Perhaps I’m an anomaly, with the number of engineers I know, but from my perspective, there doesn’t seem to be a huge shortage of them. I guess it boils down to what types of engineers companies are looking for.

The Washington Post investigated just how good—or bad—U.S. engineers have it, employment wise. It found that the struggling economy certainly has taken a toll on the field, but less so than others. The 2011 U.S. unemployment rate for those in “architecture and engineering occupations” was 5.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s compared to an unemployment rate of 8.9 percent for the country overall. But compare last year’s engineering unemployment rate to the rate in 2006—1.7 percent—and it’s clear the field has been seriously affected by the poor economy.

The article also broke down the unemployment rate by different kinds of engineering fields. Industrial engineers have had it the worst, with a 5.5 unemployment rate. Following them are civil engineers at 4.8 percent, electrical engineers at 3.4 percent, and mechanical engineers at 2.4 percent.

Do these stats seem right on? Are engineers in demand where you live? What is the employment picture in your field? Share below what your experiences have been as an engineer—or job seeker—over the past few years.

Photo: iStockphoto

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