Is Graduating More Engineers the Solution?

I’m pretty openly skeptical about the prospects for education as a means of reviving America’s economic prospects. Every so often somebody says something to the effect that we need to be graduating a lot more engineers in this country. My invariable retort is to do what? Let’s look at some numbers, these from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Specialty Number Median Annual Wage
Aerospace Engineers 70,570 $94,780
Agricultural Engineers 2,620 $68,790
Biomedical Engineers 14,760 $78,860
Chemical Engineers 29,000 $88,280
Civil Engineers 259,320 $76,590
Computer Hardware Engineers 65,410 $98,820
Electrical Engineers 151,660 $83,110
Electronics Engineers, Except Computer 135,990 $89,310
Environmental Engineers 50,610 $77,040
Health and Safety Engineers, Except Mining Safety Engineers and Inspectors 24,070 $74,080
Industrial Engineers 209,300 $75,110
Marine Engineers and Naval Architects 5,270 $74,330
Materials Engineers 22,510 $83,190
Mechanical Engineers 232,660 $77,020
Mining and Geological Engineers, Including Mining Safety Engineers 6,310 $79,440
Nuclear Engineers 16,710 $96,910
Petroleum Engineers 25,540 $108,910
Engineers, All Other 159,680 $89,560

Engineering, generally, is not a growth profession. According to the IEEE, the number of electrical engineers in the U. S. in 2000 was around 450,000. Now it’s around 151,000. I’ve published statistics around here before demonstrating that overall we’ve lost about 500,000 engineering jobs in the U. S. in the last ten years.

According to the top three best paying degrees for 2010 were Petroleum Engineering (average offer $86,220), Chemical Engineering (average offer $65,142), and Mining Engineering (average offer $64,552). Rounding out the top 10 were various other computer and engineering fields. These are all very decent wages. How do you reconcile that with the decline in the number of jobs?

The snippy answer to that question is that I don’t have to: the numbers speak for themselves. But I’ll try to give a more responsive answer. Most engineers are either civil engineers, electrical or electronics engineers, industrial engineers, or mechanical engineers. They account for something like 90% of all degreed engineers. The specialties that are paying the best aren’t paying it to a lot of engineers. You’ve got to look at the area under the curve, not just how high the curve is in one dimension.

There are only 6,310 mining engineers in the country total. Degrees in the field are only offered in a handful of schools. When I was in school there were only four mining schools in the United States. I suspect there are fewer now. Similarly with petroleum engineers. There are only 26,000-some odd of them in the country. How many total new jobs for petroleum engineers were there in the United States last year? 1,000? 2,000?

About 20 schools offer programs in petroleum engineering, producing about 1,000 graduates all told per year, including masters and doctorates. Even if that number were to double or quadruple it would still be a drop in the bucket compared to the number of engineering jobs being lost.

As I’ve said before here, engineering jobs inevitably follow production and unless we see production ramping up in the United States, which seems pretty unlikely at this point, it doesn’t appear to me that engineering will become anything like a safe harbor.

Engineering draws its members from the same pool of people that the other professions do: people with IQs one to two standard deviations above normal, i.e. IQs of from 115 to 130. That’s the same pool as lawyers, doctors, and so on. The bottom line on this is that if you’re smart enough to be an engineer you’re probably smart enough to be a physician and physicians make a heckuva lot more money. It takes a pretty dedicated prospective engineer to work as hard as engineering students do to pursue a dwindling pool of jobs when you can set your sights on being a physician or medical technician.

While healthcare may offer bright prospects for those in it, I don’t see the idea of everybody being employed in that sector as a bright one for the economy for a simple reason: 60% or more of the dollars spent on healthcare come from tax dollars. We’d be back to the cat and rat farm I’ve written about before.

22 comments… add one
  • Sam Link

    I’ll counter with some advantages (I’m an electrical engineering grad).
    1) You can make a lot of money a lot faster in engineering than most other professions – I have in net worth what a typical new doctor has in debt.
    2)Degrees can be cheap – I graduated with 3k in student loans with little help from my parents because I did a co-op program
    3)You are not at all limited to doing your field of engineering after you complete your degree.
    3.1) Don’t neglect to include people in engineering management, vice presidents, presidents, CEOs, technical sales and technical marketing who started their careers as engineers. Of the people in my graduating class I still keep in touch with, the minority are still doing electrical engineering (I’m not either), but all have good jobs.

  • The question of whether engineering provides adequate prospects for the (dwindling) number of people who pursue it is distinct from the issue of whether we can revitalize our economy by graduating significantly more engineers.

    I think that we’ll have more engineering graduates if there are more jobs for engineers. I’m skeptical it will work the other way around.

  • Sam Link

    There are a lot of new degrees that weren’t around just 9 years ago when I graduated that are essentially what used to be engineering degrees with specialization before: systems design, network analyst/administrator, software engineering, as well as engineering business hybrid degrees. A lot of those may not show up as strictly engineering jobs. In other words, engineering jobs as defined by BLS may be dwindling, but the technical jobs you used to get an engineering degree to do now have their own specialized degrees and job categories.

  • Maxwell James Link

    Graduate more engineers? No.

    Graduate more people with technology skills? Definitely.

  • You’re welcome to do your own data gathering, Sam. I continue to doubt that it will show that the numbers of jobs requiring science and technical degrees is growing with enough speed to make up for the losses elsewhere other than in healthcare.

    Just to take one example you gave, consider software engineers (systems software). They increased in number by 1.5% from 2008 to 2009, from 381,830 to 385,200.

    Not to be snippy but many computer specializations hardly require technical education at all—they just require certification.

  • Maxwell James:

    Your link is right on the money. I’m completely in favor of in-house training, apprenticeship programs, and so on. We should be incentivizing it.

  • Sam Link

    I continue to doubt that it will show that the numbers of jobs requiring science and technical degrees is growing with enough speed to make up for the losses elsewhere other than in healthcare.

    What if I renamed it entreprengineering. I’m skeptical that there will be a finite number of jobs for engineers if more people graduated from engineering. What you get from engineering school is a giant toolbox with way more tools than you can ever use – a lot of them admittedly obsolete before you leave – but also the ability to analyze and creatively apply those tools in a way that someone with a technical credential in PHP and a highschool diploma would not likely think to do. You also get work ethic, time management, competition and shown a prospective employer the drive and ability to finish something challenging.

  • john personna Link

    As an autistic leaning engineer (but still in normal range!)(*), I don’t get the point.

    If these are the highest paid majors then, (a) yes, graduating more of them will yield benefits for the graduates, (b) the fields in which they work should benefit from their valuable(**) efforts, and (c) ultimately, with enough graduates the wages will be diluted.

    Help autistic me with the argument? Is it just the straw man that more engineering graduates will not cure all ills? As an engineer I know that, I R one.

    * – according to the one on-line test I took
    ** – if we believe in markets

  • john personna Link

    Shorter Me: If you graduate enough engineers to dilute those wages, then you’ve done your job. You’ve found work for those youth, and you’ve filled a critical need in US industry.

    If that’s not enough for you … I guess you can write an essay.

  • Eric Rall Link

    The BLS has a narrower definition of Engineer than most colloquial usage. The latter includes computer programmers and software engineers, while the former does not (instead categorizing us in “Computer and Mathematical Science Occupations”).

    BLS shows:
    Title — Employment — Median Wage
    Computer Programmers — 367,880 — $74,690
    Computer Software Engineers, Applications — 495,500 — $90,170
    Computer Software Engineers, Systems Software — 385,200 — $96,620

    There’s your 500,000 missing engineers, and then some.

  • Drew Link

    As someone with a BS (and don’t we all know that) and MS in engineering…………and therefore being a great American and superior being……oh, wait…….I was dreaming there for a second; I’m awake now……..

    Some observations –

    1. Mining and petroleum engineers get paid a premium in part because they tend to end up in godawful places like West Texas, or the Gulf, or bofo Colorado.

    2. I guess its self serving, and patting one’s own back, but I like Sam’s point. I don’t think I’d be as good at what I do today (or able to make it happen) – which is so far from the pure engineering I did for the first 6 years of my career – without having that base in the disciplines of what engineering teaches. In a way, its an arrogant profession. They teach you how, and encourage you to believe that, if given some time you can figure anything out.

    3. On the whole IQ thing. It doesn’t follow that IQ = earnings power. Nor should it. Yes, if you have an IQ of 130 you might be capable of being an engineer, doctor or private equity investor. But if you have control over very large sums of financial interests, its likely you will get paid more highly to steward those large sums. And further, the skills/attributes required to steward those sums are broader than IQ.

    4. “As I’ve said before here, engineering jobs inevitably follow production and unless we see production ramping up in the United States, which seems pretty unlikely at this point, it doesn’t appear to me that engineering will become anything like a safe harbor.”

    I think this is flat damned correct. Better to set up the country with tax and investment incentives, and regulatory policies that encourage production here. The tech talent will follow, and fast. BTW – they are mining an awful lot of tar sands up in Canada people. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

  • sam Link


    “Not to be snippy but many computer specializations hardly require technical education at all—they just require certification.”

    I’ll second that. My degrees are in philosophy, I spent most of my working life in publishing and ended it doing technical support for a large computer company. There was, of course, lots of training as we went along and I had become certified in Unix prior to the job. There were a lot of folks like me working for that company.

  • Jimbino Link

    The important difference between engineering on one hand and medicine and law on the other hand are that:

    1. Engineers won’t be relegated to serve as virtual gummint employees, as will all medical care practitioners under Obamacare.
    2. Law and medicine cannot be practiced in a different state without re-certification, whereas almost no engineer has difficulty gaining the right to work in a different state, and often not in a different country. Lawyers, doctors and nurses have to seek re-certification. Witness the great number of foreign doctors and lawyers driving taxis as refugees.
    3. Engineering can be practiced on the moon.
    4. The skills learned in engineering, principally advanced math and science, are most sought-after in many fields, especially on Wall Street.
    5. Engineers, like Gates and Dell, can practice and change the world, without even a BS, in the grand tradition of Watts, Edison and Ford.
    6. There’s nobody to test an engineer to make sure he’s “moral enough” to practice his profession, whereas MDs and JDs have to bend over regularly, beginning with their state bar associations. An engineer can start right out practicing again after serving a 20-year sentence for child abuse or murder.
    7. And most important: engineers don’t have to hang out with doctors and lawyers, kissing ass and genuflecting.

    The big disadvantage to being an engineer is that the IRS has singled them out for special tax treatment. That’s one big reason why our hero Joseph Stack chose the IRS for special treatment.

  • Asia graduates 7 engineers for every 1 the US graduates.

    It amuses me when I hear a computer scientist or software engineer or a “technologist” wax rapturously about “Alternative Energy” and the disruptive breakthroughs and innovation that will make it flourish. Sometimes I laugh outright. They look at me like I am confused and pat me on the head.

    If you look on Linkedin at where the people who work at Tesla Motors come from and go to you will see that they come from Google and go to Apple by large percentages. Fortunately they are people who can deal with advanced high technology and familiar with creative destruction and the business model that will have electric cars replace gasoline and diesel fueled cars over the next decade.

    In the future the schools will develop programs to provide students with broad technological skill sets so that they will be ables to move through various jobs in their working lives from medicine to telecommunications to software. Overspecialization in one area like engineering or chemistry or others you would choose to name are relics of the Industrial Age and things have moved on considerably since then.

    I just became the “Mayor of Starbucks” on First Street on Fourquare! AwRight!

    MM @shooteyeout

  • MM:

    I gather from your comment that you’re not an engineer.

    I don’t know what it’s like now but long, long ago when I was in school (and dinosaurs ruled the earth) an engineering student took between two and three years of courses that provided “students with broad technological skill sets so that they will be ables to move through various jobs in their working lives”. Then there was between one and two years worth of specialization.

    All engineering students took very much the same curriculum for the first two years—mostly math, chemistry, physics, fluid dynamics (for most specialties).

    The barrier for moving from, say, telecommunications to medicine (the other direction is very unlikely) is mostly licensing, not educational.

  • john personna Link

    I get where MM is coming from, but the problem is not endemic as he suggests.

    Any engineering team needs optimists, but it needs some “show me” types as well. What you sometimes get is cross-over optimism, which is even worse. There are software engineers who say “look what we did with computer speed over the last 50 years, we can do the same with cars!”

    That’s kind of optimistic, but it takes some time to slow down and think of ways that computers and cars are different.

    (My synopsis would be that computers could get cheaper and faster because they could be made ever smaller. The physical space for a bit went from obvious in 1950 to totally invisible. Cars can’t do that unless we can reduce passengers to micron scale.)

  • Hahahahaha, tongue in cheek for some of above! (and some not, about what computer programmers do not know about real world machines and think they do.) Been a enjineer for too many years to admit in public – and have the degrees and licenses and publications to prove it.

    Computers and software are just tools. The interesting part is how we move past what Von Neumann and Turing invented. Telecom is boring unless you start analyzing the complexity of networks and how you design chips at the epitaxy level as well as logic level. But my background is in thermodynamics and heat transfer and math – but the electric stuff is interesting when you really get to what it is under the hood.

    There are 1000 engineers that know how to hook up wires to a drawing for every one who knows how to build the machine and what the limitations on it really are.

    It is like that old old TV show about “thinking like a lawyer” The only way you think like a enjineer is to be born that way and take all those basic things like partial differential equations and machine design and circuit logic and chemistry and . . . . anything less is just a trained mechanic that knows what button to press.

    Just an opinion.

  • john personna Link

    I was at a company where a rising star in software told me he wanted to make a trailer, with solar panels, to tow behind his car … to power his car.

    It turns out his great software design didn’t work either.

  • Charles Laviolette Link

    We have had a huge decline in manufactured goods in the United States. Obviously, without factories to employ them, engineers have to follow their work to foreign countries. POTUS Nixon practically dismantled the greatest technology engine that the world had ever seen beyond war. I am speaking of NASA, where 247,000 jobs were eliminated during his term. I marvel at the wonders and science they produced. When those engineers, scientist and techs lost their jobs here in the U.S., many followed their passion to other countries to develop ESA, Italy, Japan.
    Silicon Valley is again booming but the manufacturing from it leaves the country.It seems the only thing perpetuating us is deficit spending and war.

  • i graduated as an engineer in 84. hard to get a traditional job and i didnt like the promotion of women ahead of men at my then company rohm and haas. but it was nice to graduate not only debt free but with 10000 dollars in my bank account. bought 1st to 3rd houses in 10 years then quit to own/operate a resort hotel. now make over 700000 per year. boy am i glad i knew how to do my own engineering and write my own programs. do you think i wish was promoted and later fired?

  • Rick Link

    The original question was about a path for revitalizing America’s economy. Not about how much an engineer makes. Engineers are a needed tool to repair the economy but intelligent control over the supply and demand of the raw material resources and resulting products is what defines an economy. WW I had on one side a protagonist with the ability to produce as much needed fixed ammonia as needed to supply the main resource for extended continued slaughter. The other side had a monopoly on bird shit.
    Care to guess who won? The guys with the bird shit. The invention of the tactic of a walking bombardment is what broke the trench warfare stalemate. As a reward deals were cut for the the release of the Haber-Bosh process world wide which did a lot for making the total number of casualties in the next world war a lot higher. The wars are at least getting smaller but only after some pretty obvious buy costly lessons were learned. The world is headed towards a global economic equilibrium. Inequality drives violence and it’s main by product of economic chaos. I think where on the technology ladder the equilibrium point is maintained will depend more on the degree of intelligent control.

  • Rob Link

    With an engineering degreee you can do a plethora of jobs. You can even take an engineering “tech” position if you have an actuall degree. The technichal engineers will get screwed. The real engineers will keep their job.

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