Employment Data Paints a Disturbing Picture
by Russell Harrison
In the first quarter of 2005,
electrical engineers (EE) faced an
unemployment rate that by fell to 2.1
percent, just about its historic average. The rate has been
declining since 2003 when electrical engineers faced an
unemployment rate of 6.3 percent — the highest ever recorded for EEs.
Good news? Not really. While a
falling unemployment rate is usually a sign of an improving job
market, in this case it is part of a troubling trend.
The chart below gives a more
comprehensive picture of the job market for electrical
engineers. The two lines show the unemployment rate (blue) and
total employment (red). Between 2000 and 2003, electrical
engineers faced a typical, if bad, job market: unemployment went
up as total employment fell.
But in 2003, the situation
changed. Between 2003 and the first quarter of this year,
unemployment fell along with total employment, which declined
from 363,000 in 2003 to 335,000 in March of 2005, almost 8
percent. The only way the number of unemployed engineers and the
number of employed engineers can both fall at the same time is
if a large number of engineers are simply leaving the
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),
the government agency responsible for gathering employment data,
uses a simple survey of households to establish employment
levels and rates. The agency calls a person at random, asks what
they do for a living and if they have a job. A person who
considers him/herself to be an electrical engineer, but who
currently does not have a job, would show up as part of the
unemployment rate. However, if the next month the same person is
called and they have taken a job as a clerk in a local store,
they would no longer be an unemployed engineer. They would be an
employed sales clerk. In this case, both the engineering unemployment rate
and total employment would fall — while the employment rate and
total employment for sales clerks would rise.
The actual number of practicing electrical
engineers continues to decline, even as the dot.com collapse
fades into memory. By 2003, most of the economic effects of the
boom and bust had already run their course as the bulk of the
economy recovered and moved on. But the number of
self-identified electrical engineers continues to decline, even
as the rest of the economy recovers.
This situation is not identical
across all engineering disciplines. A few fields,
including software engineers and computer and information
systems managers, have seen their number rise in the past year.
But overall, 2004 saw 220,000 fewer employed U.S. electrical engineers
than in 2000, despite falling unemployment, according to BLS
Declining employment can be as
worrisome as increasing unemployment. The economy can still
benefit from an unemployed engineer who has taken a
non-engineering job. But when an engineer leaves the profession,
those high-value skills may be lost for good.
IEEE-USA has many career and employment products and
services to aid unemployed and employed U.S. IEEE members. For
an overview of the tools, products and services that IEEE-USA
has to offer, go to the IEEE-USA Career Navigator Web Site at
Russell T. Harrison is
IEEE-USA's Legislative Representative for Grassroots Activities.
He can be contacted at