Where the Engineering Jobs Are

The news is good but not great for engineers looking for work in 2010

Photo: Stephen Webster/Getty Images

Last year, pink slips were seemingly everywhere for engineers and computer scientists, as the likes of Texas Instruments and Microsoft laid off employees in record numbers. Things are better for engineers this year, but the signals are still mixed. Tech companies plan to hire at least as many electrical engineers as last year, but those already laid off are having a hard time finding jobs. And while new grads are getting fewer offers, they’re doing better than their peers—according to a recent report, engineering degrees accounted for eight of the 10 highest paid degrees in the United States.

Though last year the average college graduate got a lower starting salary than the year before, computer-science majors saw an increase of 4.7 percent, to US $60 426, according to the latest salary report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, in Bethlehem, Pa. Electrical engineers saw an increase of 3 percent, to $59 326.

"If we look at long-term unemployment data, there has been typically one peak in each decade," says IEEE-USA past president Gordon Day. "We’ve had two—2003 and 2009—perhaps a sign of greater volatility in technology employment."

Hiring remains strong in aerospace, defense, and energy. There is also a shortage in the power and energy sector, Day says. "In areas like renewable energy and the smart grid, demand has increased faster than students can be educated."

Jobs for computer scientists and engineers will grow much faster than the average for other occupations over the next eight years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in part because of a boom in wireless technologies, electronic records, data processing, and information security. Other good employment bets include patent law firms, management consultancies, and financial companies.

On the other hand, unemployment data published early this year by the BLS indicate things are not going well for laid-off electrical engineers. The number of EEs without jobs fell from 7.3 percent in the third quarter of 2009 to 5.2 percent in the fourth. Coupled with a 3 percent dip in the number of employed EEs, the data suggest that EEs who previously identified themselves as unemployed have either stopped looking for jobs or are switching to other fields.

In Europe, unemployment is about 3 percent for electrical and electronics engineers; overall rates of unemployment hover in the double digits. Hiring had slowed down along with the rest of the global economy but is slowly starting to pick up. Companies large and small are looking for a few new hires, especially those with specific skills in software and hardware design.

Reliable numbers for employment in Asia are hard to find, but indicators point to a healthy job market for EEs. The number of science and engineering doctoral degrees in China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan is increasing, as is R&D spending, which is expected to surpass that in the United States if it hasn’t already, according to the National Science Foundation. U.S. and European firms have been trawling this well-stocked pool of engineering talent.

Employers are being selective about where they look for talent. With so many experienced professionals on the market, they have their pick of qualified candidates. "It makes more sense these days to hire someone with experience than someone new, and the cost difference might not be as big as it once was," says Suzanne Kahn, who represents nanotechnology company Nantero, of Woburn, Mass.

This has affected on-campus hiring. While recruiting has been vibrant at top engineering schools, other schools report a drop. At Ohio State University, recruiting for EEs and computer engineers is down 13 percent, and fewer students are getting offers. "Salaries continue to be good," says Douglas Williams, electrical and computer engineering professor at Georgia Tech. "But there are fewer offers per student. And the bottom half of the class is having a much harder time finding employment."

This article originally appeared in print as "Where the Jobs Are."

This article was updated on 19 July 2010.

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