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Career Outlook for Engineers in Today's Economy

By George W. Zobrist

Engineering graduates and those already in the workforce face uncertain times in today’s chilling economic climate. The main avenues for job growth are through replacement and future economic growth. In general, engineering professionals leave their positions at a lesser rate than other areas. This tends to reduce the replacement rate. Experts predict that electrical/electronic engineering growth will be about average to below average compared to other occupations, through 2016. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for Electrical/Computer/ Electronic Engineers (in that order) will experience a 4-6 percent growth rate through 2016. Over that same period, overall engineering employment should grow about 11 percent, due in large part to sharp growth in the environmental engineering sector. As one might suspect, one reason for the slower growth rate among electrical, computer and electronics engineers is the increasing use of engineering services abroad, and the decreases in the defense budget.

The highest growth areas in engineering are projected to be: Environmental, Biomedical, Industrial and Civil Engineering specialties, ranging from 25 – 18 percent in the order specified. Other than Biomedical, these specialties will be difficult to offshore.

The need for electrical/electronic manufacturing industries to remain competitive (or, regain a competitive edge) will most likely require a heavy investment in research and development, and a resulting increase in employment (esp., for  advanced degree holders). One of the fastest growing areas will be in the service industry (i.e., consulting firms that provide engineering expertise).

In 2006, engineers held roughly 1.5 million U.S. jobs, of which, about 20 percent were in electrical/electronic engineering. About 30-40 percent of those engineering jobs were in the manufacturing sector (slow growing) while another 20-30 percent were in the service area (fast growing).

To traverse this rapidly changing employment landscape, it is extremely important that engineers remain current on the latest technological advances, which are that are changing at an equally dizzying pace. Today's engineers can keep pace by earning advanced degrees, taking continuing education courses, and attending seminars, workshops and similar ventures. Taking a passive approach to your career today could leave you more susceptible to layoff, or in not being considered for advancement.

Historically, the regions with the highest engineering employment have been New York, Texas, New Jersey and California, where one-third of engineers were employed. If the new Administration is able to follow through on its plans, opportunities should abound in alternative energy, infrastructure, and environmentally related areas. This will require considerable re-training on the part of the existing workforce; and for engineers still in the education environment, or recent grads, to expand their areas of expertise.

The Placement Director at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, recently stated that hiring of new engineers is down from approximately 20 to 15 positions per company. Career Fair attendance is down approximately 20 percent and some job offers are being rescinded. The director felt that interviewing students will have to work “harder” to find a suitable position in this economic cycle.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the following projections for employment from 2006 -2016, and the average starting salaries are also provided in the following tables. IEEE-USA also has comprehensive salary data, which can be found on their Web site.

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix

Occupational title

Employment, 2006


Change, 2006-16








Computer hardware engineers





Electrical and electronics engineers





Electrical engineers





Electronics engineers, except computer






Average starting salary by engineering specialty and degree , 2007









Electrical/electronics and communications




* Tables were excerpted from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition [www.bls.gov/oco/ocos027.htm#outlook]

Numerous Web sites discuss this topic, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U. S. Department of Labor, numerous University Placement Offices, IEEE-USA and various newspaper and magazines.

IEEE-USA has added two new e-Books to its catalog. The 2008 IEEE-USA Unemployment Survey paints a comprehensive portrait of IEEE's unemployed U.S. membership, and offers insights into the causes of — and remedies for — loss of employment among technical professionals. The second new e-Book, Launching your career: a Practitioner’s guide to Leadership, provides a starting point for those interested in becoming more effective leaders by stimulating thought, motivating practice and inspiring reflection.

IEEE members can purchase e-Books at a discounted member price, and download free e-Books at: http://www.ieeeusa.org/communications/ebooks/




Dr. George W. Zobrist is professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Rolla, Department of Computer Science, IEEE-USA's Member Activities editor, and former editor of IEEE Potentials. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2009 IEEE

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