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 September 2005

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ieee-usa pulse

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 profession.

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 data.

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 www.ieeeusa.org/careers.




Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA's Legislative Representative for Grassroots Activities. He can be contacted at r.t.harrison@ieee.org.

Copyright 2007 IEEE