Ask the Internet about the job outlook for people in ME, and two things become clear. First, we are alarmingly short of mechanical engineers in this country. Second, mechanical engineers are flooding the market.
The Internet doesn’t do nuance well. Still, for an engineering manager who expects to recruit team members in the near or distant future, it’s hard to make sense of the seemingly conflicting data. Can you assume a pile of great resumes is just a Help Wanted ad away? Or should you be prowling the robotics competitions for talent to fill tomorrow’s vacancies? Here’s what we know today:
- Unemployment is low. While the unemployment rate in the US overall is 6.1%, for mechanical engineers, the number hovers around 3%. In a US News report of the hottest tech jobs of 2014, Mechanical Engineering ranked 7th overall, but had the third lowest unemployment rate.
- Salaries are rising. While wages for most Americans have “essentially stagnated,” mechanical engineers have enjoyed a 30% raise since 2000. Back then, median salary for a mechanical engineer was $60,860. Today, it’s $80,580.
- Labor shortages are looming. According to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the US expects a dramatic shortfall of scientists and engineers in the future. According to this report, “the US must produce approximately 1 million more STEM professionals over the next decade than are projected to graduate at current rates.”
- More jobs are opening up. Even with declines in US manufacturing, opportunities still exist for mechanical engineers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, industry will need ME’s for the next generation of hybrid-electric and clean diesel automobiles and to further automate manufacturing. And if you specialize in oil and gas extraction, you’re already in high demand. Overall, the BLS forecasts job growth of 5% in the next 10 years for mechanical engineers.However, note that other occupations, including other engineering fields, expect around double that growth in the same time frame. Five percent is well below average as job growth goes.
- And actually, there’s no evidence of labor shortages at all. Google “Engineering Shortage,” and you’re likely to pull up articles like “Are Engineers Really in Demand?” and “Is There a Big Shortage of American Engineers? A New Study Says No.”In “The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage,” published last year in the Atlantic, the author argues that there’s no data to back up claims that a good engineer is hard to find. “No one has been able to find any evidence indicating current widespread labor market shortages or hiring difficulties in science and engineering occupations that require bachelors degrees or higher, although some are forecasting high growth in occupations that require post-high school training but not a bachelors degree.” In fact, he says the only disagreement is whether we have 100% of the engineers we need, or 200%. On the other hand …
- Working mechanical engineers are among the most fully employed graduates. Just a few days ago, the Washington Post blog reported results from a survey of 68,000 workers. The data showed who felt most and least underemployed—by college major. Underemployment generally refers to underutilization of skills or simply working part time involuntarily. As you might guess, liberal arts majors reported high underemployment. But so did criminal justice and business management majors. If engineering shortages are indeed a myth, you might expect mechanical engineers to report high numbers too. It turns out, mechanical engineers were among the least underemployed, ranking in between physics majors and electrical engineers. A total of 3 in 4 said they make the most of their education at their current job.
So what do you make of it all? Sluggish job growth and an abundance of labor or a vibrant job market? I think the evidence points to a pretty good job market, with a few scattered caution signs. For example, that government report on STEM professional shortages doesn’t say exactly which occupations will be in demand in the next 10 years. And despite the relative rankings, 1 in 4 MEs claim to be underemployed.
If you’re an engineering manager, that might mean you’ll have to work harder to build the team you want in the future. But it won’t be impossible. Don’t prowl at those robotics competitions. Volunteer. It’s a nice thing to do anyway. And start working today to build a culture on your team that tomorrow’s engineers will want to be part of.
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