Is There an Engineering Shortage in the United States?

Posted by Bill Pollock on Aug 10, 2016 4:13:28 PM

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We often hear or read about a shortage or anticipated shortage of engineers in the United States. To address this, programs are developed in elementary and high schools to encourage students to develop a love of math and become prepared for a careers in engineering or other applied sciences. Everyone knows that the United States is suffering from shortages in its science and engineering workforce, and that if continued, these shortages will cause us to fall behind countries who are economic competitors.  Common knowledge is that these shortages are due mainly to weaknesses of the US educational system. 

Everyone knows this, but do we know it because it’s true or do we know it because this concept has been propagated through the media for so long that we have all come to accept it as truth?

Improving the educational system and strengthening math and science is very good and it is often true that a career in technology will pay a premium over one in the humanities or social sciences. But the question is how many opportunities are there for engineers and others and do we really have a shortage? Many companies take advantage of the B-1 visa program to import foreign engineers to fill their needs. Over the years engineering projects, or portions of them, have been outsourced to India or other nations. Are these results of a real shortage of US engineering talent or simply a desire to cut costs? 

While there are reports stating concerns of industry leaders regarding a shortage of engineers, many who hold a different view. Many say that there is no shortage at all and in fact there is evidence suggesting surpluses. There are significantly more engineering graduates in the United States than attractive positions available in the workforce. The truth is that there is little credible evidence of the claimed widespread shortages in the U.S. engineering workforce. How can the conventional wisdom be so different from the empirical evidence? No one has been able to find any evidence indicating current widespread labor market shortages or hiring difficulties in engineering occupations that require bachelor’s degrees or higher.

I personally know of engineering graduates who, after spending years and thousands of dollars, are not able to find a job in their field and end up underemployed. Is this circumstantial, discipline specific, or based on the geography in which they carry out their job hunt? One of the best tools for identifying surpluses and shortages has been recruiters and job placement agencies. They can tell you how many applicants there are for every engineering position posted and how often engineers employ them to locate positions. 

Economic cycles have a clear impact on this. Three years ago, for example, there was a shortage of engineers in the oil industries in Houston. Salaries skyrocketed as the demand increased. Job hopping to take advantage was the norm. Seeing this demand, many students enrolled in the field and the number of graduates tripled over time. Today many of those jobs are gone, engineers are unemployed or under employed and salaries are down by twenty or thirty percent. Many engineers have left the area to find employment elsewhere. 

The demand and supply of engineers vary by market and location in much the same way that the demand and supply of any commodity. These fluctuate based on shifts and swings in the economy and the industries driving it. The demand for petroleum engineers in Texas is different from the demand for petroleum engineers in Massachusetts. More aerospace engineers are employed on the west coast than in any other part of the country. There may, in fact be an engineering shortage, but it may be limited to a certain part of the country or a specific field of engineering. The supply and demand for engineers is not much different than the supply and demand for any commodity. Evidence shows that many companies are reluctant to take on the task of training new graduates and tend to hire from those who are 3 to 5 years out of college. This can create a surplus of new graduates, who then at times become underemployed. 

So, at the end of the day, after reading the articles and looking at the empirical data it appears that things are going along just fine. The laws of supply and demand appear to be working well. We can sleep at night knowing that if and when there are good paying jobs in engineering, an entrepreneurial youngster will enroll in an engineering program, get his or her degree, and step forward to take the job and the salary attached to it. The United States has for many years been a leader in engineering and engineering innovation. We can be confident that this will continue for many decades to come.    

Topics: Trends

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