As the “E” in “STEM,” engineering is an important field of knowledge that is vital to the American economy. I thought it would be interesting to see how employment in this field was affected during recent years of recession and recovery, so I created the following graph (from BLS figures):
My main takeaway from this chart is that employment in engineering occupations tends to be reasonably stable. Apart from the 2007–2008 employment decline of 26 percent for aerospace engineers, only one occupation saw a double-digit decline between any two years: the 12 percent 2008–2009 decline for computer hardware engineers. On the other hand, these occupations did not show great growth over this period either—with the exception of petroleum engineers, which grew by 127 percent. Their average growth over the 2007–2012 period is only 3 percent, if you remove petroleum engineers.
Although employment in the occupations changed within relatively modest boundaries, the fluctuations show quite distinct paths. Employment for most of them bottomed out in 2010, evidently the delayed result of the recession as employers ran out of rainy-day funds and needed to lay off workers.
Here’s another chart, with the same set of occupations, showing projected employment growth between 2012 and 2022:
Petroleum engineers is the standout occupation here, again. The recent upward slope of civil engineers resembles that of many of the other specializations, but the growth of this occupation really takes off in the decade ahead. The Occupational Outlook Handbook reports, “As infrastructure continues to age, civil engineers will be needed to manage projects to rebuild bridges, repair roads, and upgrade levees and dams. Moreover, a growing population means that new water systems will be required while the aging, existing water systems must be maintained to reduce or eliminate leaks of drinkable water.” By comparison, the projected growth for mechanical and industrial engineers is modest.
Over the course of a career, engineers tend to find advancement by going into management (for example, project management) rather than by becoming increasingly specialized. Employers often are reluctant to increase the pay of seasoned engineers when they can hire young graduates of engineering schools who are conversant with the latest technologies. Sales engineering is another potential route for career development, especially for those who have good people skills and are not averse to frequent travel. Technical writing is another possibility, but it is much less lucrative.