Engineering, Science and Tech for the Pros

February 19, 2008

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Despite concerns, those with a bent toward science, technology and engineering still have large opportunities for well-paying and satisfying jobs in America and throughout the rest of the world.

During a meeting last November on America's science and engineering workforce, Michael Teitelbaum, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, told members of the United States House something surprising: Not only is there not a shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S. — to the contrary, there are "substantially more scientists and engineers graduating from U.S. universities" than there are jobs.

Indeed, long-term data on the U.S. workforce show a trend toward increasing numbers of workers in science- and engineering-related occupations. Although different data sources yield somewhat different estimates of the size of this particular labor force, "there is no doubt that overall growth has been large and steady for more than a half century," according to the National Science Board's new Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 report, released last month.

In terms of the number of recently graduated engineers and scientists available in the U.S. to fill job openings, statistics paint a mixed picture. For one, a number of these degrees are awarded to foreign students, many of whom will not be allowed to stay in the U.S. due to restrictive immigration laws. (See today's Nothing New: High H-1B Visa Demand Expected)

Officially, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) counts 2.4 million people employed in architecture and engineering occupations; 1.2 million in life, physical and social sciences; and 3.0 million in computer and mathematical occupations. Tech pros continued to be in high demand in 2007, with an annual average unemployment rate of 2.1 percent, ranking far below the national annual average of 4.6 percent, according to the BLS.

Large numbers of university students around the world are enrolled in engineering and scientific disciplines. And many of them are dreaming about potentially vast rewards if their efforts pay off professionally.

Despite deep concerns about job security and the offshore outsourcing of engineering work to lower-cost markets — mainly in Europe and South Asia — American engineers were found to have annual compensation nearly 40 percent higher than their closest competitors, according to the latest EE Times Annual Salary & Opinion Survey.

More than 50 percent of the technology workers surveyed for the latest Dice Tech Appeal Index are satisfied with their salaries.

Among the findings revealed by EE Times' survey was that engineers in the U.S. last year had median earnings, including benefits, of $108,800, slightly higher than 2006's median of $104,300. That compares with European respondents' median of just over $61,000. Japanese engineers reported median earnings of $65,400. The survey samples were just under 1,600 in North America, just over 1,900 in Japan and 164 in Europe.

Technology salaries have slowly but steadily increased over the last five years since average salaries declined in the early part of the decade, according to Dice.com's latest Tech Appeal Index. In 2007, average tech salaries increased 1.7 percent, following a 5.2 percent increase in 2006. Last year, contractors still had the largest gains at 3.7 percent (for a salary of $93,017) while full-time workers experienced a 1.7 percent rise ($72,003).

"Scientific research," according to PayScale, is among the top-paying industries in America, with an annual median salary of $62,640.

Future Jobs in Demand Engineering technicians and machine operators both are among America's 10 most wanted workers right now. And mechanical engineers and robotics engineers with management experience or Lean certification are "hot 6-figure jobs," according to CNNMoney.com late last year. This is due in no small part to manufacturers having to further automate and improve their production process (i.e., make more cost-efficient).

"Even though the automotive industry is shrinking, technical advances in cars and the need for engineers who mastermind them are not," notes CNNMoney.com. This makes engineers specializing in products, manufacturing, quality, electrical, mechanical and design areas among the best jobs for the long run.

So, too, are aerospace, electrical and information technology (IT) engineers, as well as managers in business development, products, finance, procurement and manufacturing.

Considering the quest to conquer space — by the U.S. and an increasing number of developed countries — the future for aerospace is particularly bright.

The average annual starting salary for recent bachelor's degree graduates in aerospace engineering is $54,008, according to a National Professional Engineers survey (via The Wall Street Journal). Big companies tend to pay more for people who become specialized in a particular area — e.g., hydraulics or how air flows across wings on a plane. At smaller aerospace companies, you're likely to have broader responsibilities. Plus, the major players in the field (e.g., Boeing and Lockheed Martin) run one- to two-year cross-training programs that give their strongest engineers a chance to work in other areas of the company for a few months at a time to figure out where they have the greatest interest and talent.

Moreover, computer-related jobs, such as computer software engineers, "lead the fastest growing careers pack," as organizations increasingly invest in more sophisticated information technology, according to PayScale. The BLS estimates that American employers will need 135,000 new computer professionals yearly.

Looking forward further, among the top hot jobs of 2012 will be such science and tech roles as computational biologists, data technologists and robot builders/tenders, according to another mainstream source, MSNBC.

In the long run, there are perhaps two overwhelmingly promising markets for engineers and scientists: biotech and energy.

Biotech The convergence of IT, nanotechnology and biotechnology is fueling the research budgets (not to mention the imaginations) of scientists and engineers. A 2004 BLS study revealed biomedical engineers will see employment growth that far surpasses all occupations through 2014.

Biotech offers a variety of job opportunities in many fields — from working in labs and going to chemical plants and agricultural fields, to those in energy, environmental management and health care. Biotech industrial jobs on the horizon include process development associates, who improve manufacturing processes and product yield, and reduce costs in fermentation and purification, and research new ways to enhance production.

Three biotech companies ranked among the top 15 in Forbes' special report America's 25 Fastest-Growing Tech Companies last month.

(Eco-Friendly) Energy Work Recruitment of top-notch employees — and then being able to retain them — is as important as being able to find new acreage for oil and natural gas exploration, according to Grant Thornton's 2008 Survey of Upstream U.S. Energy Companies. More than three-quarters of the energy companies surveyed anticipate hiring more people in 2008, yet the consulting firm says 85 percent of companies expect to encounter "difficulties in hiring and retaining employees," a sharp increase from the 69 percent of executives who felt that way a year ago.

Moreover, rapidly growing sectors in U.S., Japanese, Indian and Chinese research include alternative energy, which will receive even more emphasis due to high global demand for energy and the high costs of petroleum.

In particular, eco-friendly work may be among the best engineering jobs in the long run, as experts say a boom may be looming in green jobs. President George W. Bush's push to have the nation reduce its gas consumption by 20 percent in 10 years has meant a greater need for chemical and mechanical engineering talent in the growing field of alternative energy, not to mention energy efficiency, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council and Cleantech Venture Network LLC's Creating Cleantech Clusters: 2006 Update.

Conclusion In EE Times' survey late last year, slightly more than two-thirds (67 percent) of American engineers declared themselves content with both career and employer; only 14 percent expressed the opposite sentiment. Among European engineers, 56.8 percent of respondents said their jobs satisfied them, though dissatisfaction was also high, at 27 percent. In Japan, 84.6 percent of engineers responded that they are "satisfied" (26 percent) or "somewhat satisfied" (58.6 percent).

And despite concerns, there remain myriad opportunities for those with a bent toward science, technology and engineering — fields that still provide large numbers of well-paying and satisfying jobs in America and throughout the rest of the world.

Resources

Salary Survey: They're Not Rock Stars, but EEs Earn Satisfaction by David Benjamin EE Times, Oct. 29, 2007

Pay Grade -- Rocket Scientist The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 22, 2008

Top Paying Jobs in America - IT, Finance Industries Lead the Way by Kristina Cowan PayScale, January 2008

America's 10 Most Wanted Workers by Kate Lorenz CareerBuilder.com, Jan. 10, 2008

The Nine Fastest Growing Careers for 2008 by Kristina Cowan PayScale, January 2008

Are Green Careers the Next Google? by Kristina Cowan PayScale, April 2007

Top 10 Hot Jobs of 2012 by Jenny Lynn Zappala MSNBC, Aug. 17, 2007

Best Jobs for the Long Run by Jeanne Sahadi CNNMoney, 2007

Top Energy Executives Resilient in Face of Industry Challenges Grant Thornton, Jan. 22, 2008

Twenty in Ten: Strengthening Energy Security and Addressing Climate Change The White House, May 2007

Creating Cleantech Clusters: 2006 Update by Patrick R. Burtis, Bob Epstein and Nicholas Parker NRDC, E2 and Cleantech Venture Network LLC, May 2006

Engineering & Research Trends Plunkett Research, Ltd.

25 Highest-Paying Jobs -- No College Degree Required by Anthony Balderrama CareerBuilder

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