Chris Parkes has been something of a trendsetter for design engineers. In 2000, he had four job offers, but in the fall of 2001, he lost his job as a circuit designer. Late in 2002, he started taking courses in nursing. "I don't believe anyone starts over in a completely different profession, unless they feel there's nothing else they can do about it," the 46-year-old says. He struggled through the next couple of years without income, burning through his 401K money. "I was scared to death how hard it was," he says. Parkes finally found work for the state of California as an inspector, a job that paid less than his former wage.
Today, many fellow engineers have reason to hope he's still setting the trend. His Christ-mas holiday was brightened when a company he'd done some consulting for called. Now, he's back designing circuits, making about the same pay as he did back in 2000. "I feel very fortunate," he says.
It's uncertain other unemployed and underemployed engineers will be fortunate. No one's suggesting that the jobless recession (or is it a recovery now?) is coming to an end, though there may be more reason for optimism than in recent years.
Factors such as the shift to a global job market are altering the playing field for job hunters, prompting many to say that traditional approaches won't work during this time of disruption. Parkes landed his new job by using fairly conventional techniques, contacting people he knew. Other engineers may have to be more ingenious in their job search.
"Creative engineers will find jobs. But for the person who waits for large-corporation hiring by the dozen—those days are over," says Win Phillips, chairman of the American Association of Engineering Societies.
Though off-shore outsourcing has made what could be a permanent dent in the number of openings for skilled workers, just as it did for manufacturing personnel decades ago, there will be a few segments that will continue to hire aggressively in the U.S. "Health care remains strong, and with the money Bush has pumped into nanotechnology, we see it as possibly the biggest field in the future," says Scott Sargis, president of Strategic Search Corp. of Chicago, a firm that specializes in recruiting technical professionals.
Nanotechnology is often cited as a hot industry for EEs and chemists, but it holds promise for MEs as well. "When chemists are manipulating molecules, those smart molecules control something, so there's a need for control engineers," Phillips says. But although nanotechnology is hotter than many fields, no one expects engineers to find scores of openings.
Figuring out which new disciplines are hiring might be a challenge. Some that seem to hold great promise don't take off as expected. "Computer security is an area I thought would pick up more, but that hasn't happened," says Ron Hira, chair of IEEE-USA's Career & Workforce Policy Committee.
Though many give similar advice about urging engineers to be creative in the ways they hunt, some engineers aren't getting much education about the changing job market of today. "The institutions that have supported job-getting are failing miserably. They don't get it. It's all about individual initiative," says Nick Corcodilos, president of asktheheadhunter.com. He suggests that one of that personal initiative is for engineers to tell potential bosses how they can help improve the company's bottom line.
Though more engineers will probably work in non-traditional fields in the future, the bulk of jobs today remain in well-known industries. In these fields, the dreary job market of the past two years is showing only sporadic signs of brightness. "Things don't seem to be getting worse, and in pockets like semiconductors, it's picking up a bit. But there's no sense of robust hiring," Hira says.
Observers agree that the trend to offshore outsourcing is starting to impact design engineers, but most don't feel it's a severe hit. "We've gotten rid of some jobs that we needed to retain, but it's not a disaster. This happened post World War II and during the information revolution," Phillips says.
Even though the number of temporary H-1B workers has been scaled back dramatically, this importation of temporary workers remains an issue. "For engineering in general, H-1B is a far bigger problem than offshoring," says Norm Matloff, a University of California at Davis computer science professor well known for monitoring the engineering job market. He adds that many companies moving operations outside the U.S. say that H-1B hiring is a key part of their offshore operations.
Some are also concerned that anger over outsourcing and engineering unemployment overall will create interest in engineering unions. "What I fear is that labor unions are going to soon start preying on people's fears, and we're going to see the engineering profession turn into Detroit," Corcodilos says. He adds that organization can sometimes stifle creativity and shift focus away from innovation. The AFL-CIO has already helped organize engineering protests in San Francisco and elsewhere.
|Starting salaries for new-hires up, but just barely