Friday, 15 June 2012 11:20
June 15, 2012
The U.S. employment situation has been uncertain at best over the four years since the financial crisis kicked off the so-called Great Recession. The downturn hurt nearly every sector of the economy, but while many have begun to come back, many engineering professions are expected to grow only slowly over the course of the next decade.
Modest recovery for engineers
While the unemployment rate has fallen from its double digit peak back in late 2009, it still lingers stubbornly above 8 percent since, well above its historic norms. On the whole, the biggest loser during the recession and the ongoing recovery has been the public sector. In May, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that government employment declined to roughly 21.97 million positions, where just one year before that number stood at 22.13 million.
Meanwhile, many of the sectors of the economy where engineers play a pivotal role have actually seen modest recoveries. Manufacturing was up 227,000 positions on the year while mining and logging surged nearly 8 percent.
The only engineering profession to see a significant downturn from 2011 to 2012 was civil engineering, which lost around 1,000 positions after crushing losses in May, mostly likely associated with the delays in federal transportation bill that have held up a number of major roadway construction projects.
Long-term prospects less promising
But despite the fact that engineering employment has held its ground in the face of the ongoing uncertainty around the U.S. economy, the picture over the next decade is not necessarily as rosy as some might hope.
In its 2012-2013 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the BLS notes that no engineering profession is expected to decline between 2010 and 2020, but most will likely grow at a sluggish pace and nearly all of them come in below that national average growth rate of 14.3 percent.
In particular, positions in aerospace engineering and electronics engineering (not including computer engineers) are expected to grow at only 4.9 percent. Indeed, the field of electrical and electronics engineering - the most numerous in 2010 at 294,000 positions - is only expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent, ultimately being surpassed as the largest field by civil engineering.
There are expected to be several fields with particularly strong prospects, including five that surpass the national growth rate. Civil engineering is among them with a 19.4 percent growth rate, along with environmental engineering (21.9 percent), marine engineering and naval architecture (17.5 percent), petroleum engineering (17 percent) and biomedical engineering with a staggering 61.7 percent growth rate.
The professions are not the only five that will be looking for a significant number of new workers, however. While the engineering fields on the whole are projected to grow only slowly, more than 365,000 current engineers are expected to retire or leave their profession by the end of the decade. This amounts to a replacement rate of 24.1 percent, below the national average but still a significant portion of the industry.
Two fields in particular are expected to see heavy replacement costs, with 32 percent of all chemical engineers and 32.2 percent of all mechanical engineers likely to need replacement by the end of the decade. On average, nearly three times as many job openings will come from replacement rather than job growth.
Compensation helps to compensate
If job prospects for engineering are modest, though, there are still some strong incentives for every field. While the median annual wage for the entire country in 2010 sat at $33,840, literally no field of engineering offered a median wage of less than double that. Petroleum engineers, the field with the highest annual wage of all engineers, actually managed to reach nearly 3.4 times the national median.
Admittedly, every type of engineering requires at least a bachelor's degree for entrance to the field, and often calls for higher degrees to progress further, but engineering also dominates compensation research firm PayScale's list of the college degrees with the best salaries.
Topping the list is petroleum engineering, with a starting median salary of $97,900 and an astoundingly high mid-career salary of $155,000 - more than 1.4 times the mid-career median for the second degree on the list, chemical engineering.
Even aerospace engineering, while employment opportunities may be slow to grow, offers strong prospects for high wages, with a starting median salary of $60,700 and a mid-career median of nearly $102,000.
The other seven degrees in the list's top 10 include four more engineering degrees - electrical engineering, materials science and engineering, nuclear engineering and computer engineering. Physics, applied mathematics and computer science are the only non-engineering degrees to make the top 10, and arguments can be made about two of those. Nine more engineering degrees rank in the top half of the list.
Forbes reports that PayScale made use of the BLS's projections about job growth to attempt to identify what degrees will be most valuable in the coming years. Once again, engineering dominated this this list, with biomedical engineering supplanting petroleum engineering as the most valuable degree - hardly surprising given the incredible 61.7 percent projected growth rate for the field.
Petroleum engineering was actually rated as the ninth most valuable, despite the highest salary, but software, environmental and civil engineering rounded out the top 10.
"These aren’t majors that anyone could do. They’re hard, and these programs weed people out," Katie Bardaro, lead economist at PayScale, told Forbes. "However, there is high demand for them and a low supply of people with the skills, so it drives up the labor market price."
Reuters reports a new survey from employment services company Manpower Group found that hiring has shifted to an "only-if-necessary mode," making it all the more important for workers to develop indispensible skills.
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