Are We Lacking Engineers? Or Are Engineers Lacking? (Does It Matter?)

Many United States companies say they are facing an alarmingly growing trend; that is, a severe shortage of engineers. Contrary to this belief, however, many others say there is actually an engineer surplus. Seriously, what is going on?!?



Theory I: With a shrinking number of employed local talent in engineering fields, the United States is lacking engineers.
Theory II: Theory I is stupid. There are too many engineers, but hirers are overly nitpicky in their choosing.

And so, there is a great amount of finger-pointing taking place on dual (dueling) sides.

Those who see a valid lack of American engineers to an extent blame temporary work visa programs, wherein U.S. employers are permitted to hire foreign nationals with knowledge and skills deemed to be in short supply. Further, they blame a lack of engineering-related education programs for the gap of American engineers in general; whereas overseas countries offer incentives to their brightest students to learn in the U.S. and then offer job security for them to return, this group believes the engineering field is not emphasized enough in K-12 education.

According to News 8 Austin coverage on the topic this month, “engineering programs fill up with students from overseas, who then return home once they graduate. The shortage of U.S. students has a drastic effect on where companies go to find talent.”

Another finger-pointing target is the retirement of baby boomers. For example, a Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal article (via MSNBC) earlier this month noted John Tracy, vice president of engineering for Boeing Co.’s Integrated Defense Systems, “who says he needs to hire 1,000 engineers a month, mainly to replace retiring engineers, many of whom were originally inspired by the space race in the 1960s. But he has been able to hire only 2,500 a year in each of the past two years.”

National Instruments’ Ray Almgren told News 8 Austin, “To be competitive as a country, as a community, as a university, as our own company, we have to invest in these areas and get the students moving into this. I think it’s going to take a coordinated effort by all of these parties to really impact public policy.”

On the other hand, we may have plenty of American engineers — and they’re simply not employed. A Wall Street Journal article last week pointed out that unemployed engineers have recognized a great surplus of engineering professionals.

In fact, from 2000 to 2003 engineering employment fell 8.7 percent, reported, from an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. The American Society of Engineering Education has reported that the number of bachelor degrees in engineering rose to 72,893 in 2004 from 61,553 in 1999. And unemployment among engineers in 2004 was in line with the rate of unemployment for all professionals.

Also, consider the Arizona Republic‘s recently gleaned numerical facts of its state alone:

• Computer and mathematical jobs rose for the fifth straight month on the Monster Local Employment Index, which measures job opportunities on more than 1,500 Web sites, including its own. In metro Phoenix, architectural and engineering jobs saw one of the largest rates of growth of all the job categories during September.
• Careerbuilder.com has seen postings for IT and engineering jobs in Arizona increase 20 to 25 percent from a year ago. The IT jobs are tracking slightly below the national average, while the engineering jobs are slightly above, spokeswoman Jennifer Sullivan said.

Despite all of the aforementioned statistics, employers say they struggle to find the right person for openings.

Perhaps, then, as WSJ hypothesized, the problem lies in that company recruiters and hiring managers want pinpoint-specific skills in engineering employees.

“Amid rapidly changing technology, the engineers [that] employers want aren’t necessarily the engineers who are available,” WSJ said. “And companies often create the very shortages they decry by insisting on applicants who meet every item on a detailed list of qualifications. With the Internet adding to the pile of résumés, company officials say a certain degree of mechanical weeding-out is unavoidable.”

In addition, Boeing’s Tracy, who has come up significantly short in replacing his retiring engineers, has further been “limited by rules that require his defense projects to hire only U.S. citizens.” As such, Tracy “has had to go without.”

Hiring managers often prefer to wait for the candidate who has the exact combination of attributes they seek, the WSJ article further said, rather than immediately hiring someone who comes close and then giving that person time to become familiar with a new machine or software program. As such, in finding “the right person,” what used to take two and a half months now often takes five or six.

So, perhaps then a dramatic number of companies are going through an overly time-consuming, arduous process of hiring due to the significant number of engineer applicants, considering only the rare applicant who meets every specific requirement — an attempt to altogether eliminate any learning curve.

In effect, the unemployed engineers’ and the company recruiters’ argument is that there is by no means a shortage of engineers; rather, there is a shortage of engineers who meet companies’ specific, un-negotiable criteria.

Of course, maybe every one of these arguments is void. Said Paul Kostek, a Seattle systems engineer who was recently employed by Boeing after working as a consultant for a decade: “Every few years there is a spurt of panic that we won’t have enough engineers in five years. And I say to myself, gee, I’ll still be here.”

What are your thoughts, dear readers?

Are we lacking engineers in this country?
Or are engineers lacking in specific skills, i.e., Do companies now have un-meetable standards of potential American engineer employees?

Or…Is this debate even worth discussing?

References

Behind ‘Shortage’ of Engineers: Employers Grow More Choosy
by Sharon Begley
The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16, 2005
http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB113210508287498432-lMyQjAxMDE1MzEyNjExMDY1Wj.html

Companies look for engineers outside U.S.
by Bob Robuck
News 8 Austin, Nov. 14, 2005
http://www.news8austin.com/content/your_news/default.asp?ArID=149786

Engineering makeover seeks image upgrade
by Timothy Roberts
Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal (via MSNBC), Nov. 6, 2005
http://msnbc.msn.com/id/9954208/

Tech-worker gap: Companies face shortages as demand for IT skills grows
by Jane Larson
The Arizona Republic, Nov. 13, 2005
http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/business/articles/1113ITjobboom.html

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Comments:
  • P. Martin
    November 22, 2005

    I have heard this debate going on for some time, and believe that it probably is true that there is a shortage of engineers, at least ones graduating from U.S. programs.

    I think it is also true that companies that wish to fill an exact position with someone with exact requirements are less likely to find anyone meeting their needs.

    If you look at many universities, you will find foreign students make up about 80% of graduate numbers or at least thats what I have heard. This seems somewhat dis-proportionate if we intend to maintain our leadership status in this country. Engineers are typically the driving force behind new technology. So this is somewhat alarming.


  • K Kasting
    November 22, 2005

    I would be surprised if a genuine shortage of engineers existed — or a shortage of any skilled technical people.

    What does exist is a shortage of educated, skilled, motivated people who are willing to work for small dollars, few or no benefits, in positions offering little advancement potential. Employers want to get by very cheaply, so instead of hiring an experienced individual who knows the technology, they’ll haul a guy off the plant floor and make do with him, paying him very small dollars. I’ve seen this done repeatedly in corporations whose names you would recognize.

    Eventually, the people who are trained give up and go into another field; many chemists turn to medicine, for example, since chemistry pays not much more than pizza delivery in a lot of places.


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