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|
|Computer Hardware Engineers||65,410||$98,820|
|Electronics Engineers, Except Computer||135,990||$89,310|
|Health and Safety Engineers, Except Mining Safety Engineers and Inspectors||24,070||$74,080|
|Marine Engineers and Naval Architects||5,270||$74,330|
|Mining and Geological Engineers, Including Mining Safety Engineers||6,310||$79,440|
|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 Monster.com 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.