The future of engineering is here

  • 01-Sep-2010 04:50 EDT
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Tim McAward is the Vice President and Product Leader of Kelly Engineering Resources (KER), a specialty service of Kelly Services Inc.

Without a doubt, the field of engineering has become a popular career choice for thousands of Americans in recent years, as young and old professionals alike have chosen engineering as their ideal career path—for a variety of reasons.

First, many current college students have become attracted to the wide array of career opportunities that are available within the field, throughout all four corners of the world.

At the same time, a present shortage of engineering professionals has led some inexperienced and well-experienced workers, both within and outside of the engineering field, to pursue further education as they have begun to enroll in engineering degree programs.

In addition to the increasing number of engineering positions that are vacant, despite the ever-fluctuating conditions of the global economy, other individuals have become interested in obtaining engineering positions in the future, due to the typically high salaries that engineering professionals earn.

Quite simply, in comparison to lifetime earning potential, few career paths come close to engineering, as engineers are among the highest paid professionals in the world, year after year. However, according to the 2009 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, there were only 1.6 million engineers working in the U.S. last year, accounting for a shockingly low 1.3% of the nation’s total workforce.

As engineering talent shortages continue throughout the globe, while demand remains exceedingly high, there has rarely been a more opportune time for college students and recent graduates to obtain highly meaningful and rewarding engineering positions than now.

So, how will you react to the opportunities that are currently available for you? What will you do today, tomorrow, and well into the future to positively impact the industry as a whole? Finally, what can you do to ensure the future of engineering is bright for upcoming generations?

At the same time, as you prepare for your future within the field, what trends should you look for? What can you do today to achieve success tomorrow? By considering the following three recent engineering trends, you can adapt to various changes within the field and accomplish your career goals.

“Big Four” occupational specialties continue to attract U.S. engineers

Throughout the past few decades, four occupational specialties have generally combined to represent nearly half of the United States engineering workforce. To date, each of these specialties still attract a majority of American engineers: civil, mechanical, industrial, and electrical.

Yet, even though 49% of all American engineers are employed by organizations that specialize in one of these four disciplines, more engineering students have either enrolled in the following five programs, or have attained degrees in one of these niche disciplines, than in the “Big Four” occupational specialties, in the last five years:

• Aerospace: 30% increase in the number of graduates

• Biomedical: 50% increase in the number of graduates

• Chemical: 50% increase in undergraduate enrollment

• Environmental: 100% increase in undergraduate enrollment

• Petroleum: 100% increase in undergraduate enrollment and in the number of students graduating.

In the meantime, although the manufacturing sector continues to employ the largest percentage of American engineers, many service-based industries, including professional, scientific, and technical, have begun to hire an increasing number of engineers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2010, about 30% of all engineering professionals currently work in one of these industries.

If engineers are not employed within the manufacturing sector or in service-based industries, they generally work for federal, state, or local governments, within a variety of capacities, including the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Transportation, or U.S. Department of Energy; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); or highway and public works departments.

U.S. engineers approach retirement as college enrollment rates increase

Many U.S. engineers are approaching the traditional retirement age of 55 or older. As a result, some well-experienced engineers are no longer working full-time, thus creating a nationwide engineering talent shortage that will lead many organizations to generate more flexible work options for their employees to retain them for longer durations of time.

During the coming years, the future U.S. engineering workforce will be increasingly comprised of multiple generations of workers, including Baby Boomers and Generation X and Y employees. As engineers continue to retire and organizations search for future top talent, recent engineering graduates and current students should certainly maintain positive attitudes as they will likely find high-paying, meaningful positions, even in the midst of the ongoing national economic recession.

Meanwhile, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, undergraduate engineering program enrollment rates essentially increased by 7% between the years of 2000 and 2005. Such an increase had originally led some organizations to believe that an engineering “youth movement” had begun. However, although a large number of students had enrolled into programs, enrollment increases did not translate into a higher number of graduates from 2005 to 2009.

Nevertheless, the recent economic recession has truly created a spike in undergraduate engineering enrollment. In fall 2009, more than 427,000 students enrolled for collegiate engineering classes, a 6% increase over a one year period and a 16% increase since 2005. As the recession forced many unemployed workers to upgrade their current skills and to pursue new career opportunities, it appears a high number of individuals will begin their new careers within the next couple years—a sign that the current engineering labor shortage may slowly start to decrease throughout the upcoming decade.

Demand for engineers projected to increase in next decade

According to the 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics, organizational demand for engineering professionals is expected to increase by 11% throughout the next ten years. While this growth rate is consistent with the national average of all occupations, some engineering specialties will provide more opportunities for growth than others. The following engineering disciplines are projected for considerable growth throughout the remainder of 2010 and beyond:

• Biomedical engineers: Demand is expected to increase by an astounding 72% in the next decade, certainly the fastest and largest growth rate among all engineering specialties throughout the country.

• Civil engineers: Demand is projected to increase by 24% throughout the next ten years, leading to the creation of 67,000 new positions.

• Environmental engineers: Demand will likely increase by 31% as 16,000 new positions are created for inexperienced and well-experienced engineers alike.

• Petroleum engineers: Analysts have predicted an 18% increase of petroleum engineering positions by 2018.

While growth is expected to be significant within a wide array of engineering disciplines, a current, ongoing employment shift from manufacturing- to service-based industries, as well as an increasingly expanding globalized labor market, will likely limit employment growth in certain disciplines.

• Demand for chemical engineers is expected to decrease by 2% throughout the next ten years, likely due to a decline in overall chemical manufacturing employment.

• Electrical and computer hardware engineering job opportunities will be limited as a result of the intense competition and increased globalization of these services.

As the global economy continues to rebound, engineers’ outlooks will likely improve during the coming years as they pursue meaningful careers within their respective fields. Since the future of engineering is here, thousands of engineers of all ages will strive to positively impact their greater communities and the industry as a whole, whether they are recent college graduates or well-experienced professionals.

But, how will you react? Will you contribute your talents and skill sets to the engineering field? Today, you have an opportunity to not only obtain a meaningful career path, but to impact the lives of others. Now is the time to take full advantage of your current opportunity.

Tim McAward, Vice President and Product Leader of Kelly Engineering Resources, wrote this article for SAE Magazines.

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