Iffy future is expected for engineers
Trying to forecast demand

Jane Larson
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Engineers used to be the superheroes of the space race, and the wizards behind everything from skyscrapers to autos and appliances.

But the profession that traditionally offered high pay, job security and the chance to work on the cutting edge is facing an uncertain future.

Business and academic leaders have worried for years about the trend of declining college enrollments in engineering. The outlook for the profession has turned iffy, though, to the point where some engineering associations are even questioning whether the United States should bother trying to attract more young people into the field.

What's different now:

Unemployment rates among engineers rose sharply during the last recession and are still running above traditional low levels.

Countries such as China and India, intent on becoming high-tech economies, are pushing out vast supplies of engineering graduates.

Corporate use of outsourcing and offshoring has reduced demand for U.S.-based engineering talent.

Engineers who go back to school reap more rewards from getting an MBA than from a master's in engineering.

Flooding the market?

Engineering groups like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA and the American Engineering Association say those who want to pump up the engineering pipeline would simply flood the market and lower the wages in a key white-collar profession.

What would be more useful, some say, are better ways to forecast the demand for engineers.

"Over the past 20 years, there's been no increase in purchasing power for technical jobs," said George McClure, a Florida engineer and past chairman of IEEE-USA's career and workforce committee. "Productivity has reduced the number of jobs, and with the trend toward offshoring . . . it reduces the opportunities for newcomers."

Such fears are backed up by a RAND Corp. report last year. Analysts at the California-based think tank studied employment and salary figures since 1990 and found no evidence that a shortage of scientific and engineering workers is on the horizon. Boosting the supply, the authors warned, increases the risk that young people with years of training would enter a market where such workers are in surplus.

Those who believe in engineering's future say the profession keeps the United States a powerhouse of innovation and helps it compete in the global economy. Demand may shift from aerospace to computer engineering, for example, or from mining to civil engineering, but there will always be new and hot fields. Keeping skills updated as technology changes will be more critical than before.

"Everything points to the need for more engineering, not less," said Peter Crouch, dean of Arizona State University's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. Rising demand for security devices, the continuing construction of infrastructure and the explosion in wireless electronics can compensate for losses of engineering jobs in other fields or to offshoring, he said.

Ross DeVol, director of regional economics for the Milken Institute in California, said the recent recession was unusual, driven by lower investments in information-technology equipment, and shouldn't be confused with the long-term need for engineering talent.

"If we say we really don't need that many engineers any more, that is a recipe for disaster," he said. "That is a death spiral."

Ability to compete

The National Science Board reported last August that the number of jobs requiring science and engineering training continues to grow, but it warned that the number of Americans who train for those fields is falling. The board, an independent policy group that oversees the National Science Foundation, said the combination of those trends threatens the United States' ability to compete.

ACT Inc., best known for the ACT assessment tests administered to high-schoolers, also reported a big drop in the number of students planning to study engineering in college. Just 5.5 percent of students targeted the field in 2002, the lowest share in 12 years and a steady decline from the 8.6 percent who wanted to become engineers in 1992, the organization said.

The issue touches a nerve in Arizona, where high-tech defense and electronics industries have long provided some of the state's best jobs.

Arizona has the second-highest concentration of aerospace engineers in the nation, the third-highest concentration of electronics engineers, and the fifth-highest concentrations of health and safety engineers and agricultural engineers in 2003, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2003 data.

And Arizona's technical workforce, including its concentration of engineers, was the only measure on which Arizona got top-10 marks from the Milken Institute in its recent report on state competitiveness.

Hope at cutting edge

The Arizona Department of Economic Security projects that Arizona will need only 171 net new engineers by 2006, up just 0.56 percent from 2003 levels and less than the overall job growth rate of 3.8 percent.

Whether the decline is temporary or long-term, there are plenty of proposals for reversing it.

Some see the United States' future in cutting-edge work, trading basic manufacturing for newer fields like nanotechnology, and in encouraging engineers to keep up their skills instead of relying on their initial training in a profession where things were so good for so long.

"It's important for engineers to learn how to keep up with technology," ASU's Crouch said. "It's no surprise when business students do it, and the trend in the future is you'll find more engineers doing the same thing."

He also thinks a more complex society will require people with technical backgrounds in more walks of life, from business to medicine to education.

"If we could do that, there would be more excitement and people would see it as a platform," he said. "There are many careers where engineering would be a good starting point."