If you’re an engineer looking for work, there’s good news -- relatively speaking. “Things are not as bad for engineers” as for other sectors, says Jim Missert, president of technology placement agency ProStart.
At the same time, “2009 is going to be a tough year for everybody,” Missert adds. “Hiring and salaries will be flat, especially in the first quarters of the year.”
Companies are not skimping on research and development (R&D). For startup companies in particular, “it’s still critical to hire technical professionals, to continue development cycles to get product out the door,” Missert says. No one is enjoying robust growth, but at small and medium-sized businesses in particular, there are jobs to be had.
Many of these positions are in product development, such as Wi-Fi, telecommunications and storage. “Companies are still adding important, critical types of roles to keep the lifecycle going,” Missert says. “Midlevel to senior-level engineers are seeing more of a marketplace -- it depends on skills that you have and how current you are with those skills and your ability to sell yourself.”
According to Paul Kostek, IEEE-USA vice president for communications and public awareness, “Even with the downturn, we’re going to see opportunities in energy (including utilities, nuclear, solar and wind power) and infrastructure. That means electrical, mechanical, civil and environmental engineering will see continued growth. Even with slowing growth and cuts in defense spending, we’ll still see opportunities for engineers.”
So what can you expect in your sector of engineering? Take a look at what the experts say.
Electrical engineers averaged $82,000 a year in 2008, says Kostek. IEEE Spectrum magazine notes that the most sought-after electrical engineers are those with analog, radio frequency and wireless skills. But electrical engineers also find work in areas like solar energy, fuel cells, DNA sequencing -- even Hollywood and Disney World.
The communications technology subcategory boasts the highest average salaries for all electrical engineers: $115,000, according to Rick Nelson, editor-in-chief of Test and Measurement World and EDN magazines. Energy and power engineering salaries were also up nearly 11 percent between 2004 and 2008, to an average of more than $90,000, says Nelson.
Nelson predicts continued growth in the signal and applications specialty. “Fourth-generation cell technology, new Wi-Fi technology and new consumer devices that need to speak to each other” all provide opportunities for electrical engineers, he says.
In the US, electrical engineers going into aerospace and defense have an edge over counterparts from overseas, who are encountering difficulties getting security clearances. Meanwhile, American electrical engineers are highly sought-after abroad, as design work is shifting to other countries, Nelson says.
That shift to different countries puts pressure on US wages, Nelson explains. “While salaries in places like China had been rising, the work now is migrating to even lower-cost countries,” he says.
The 2008 Engineering Income & Salary Survey reveals the median income for civil engineers is $78,000 a year, which represents an increase from $77,000 in 2007. Kostek cites the need for infrastructure replacement and the demand for petroleum as key growth factors. Aerospace is growing, as defense spending continues to rise. The new Obama administration has not yet made any decisions as to what programs or projects will be cut -- or added -- in the defense budget.
Looking ahead, Nelson sees growth in green engineering, officially defined by the EPA as “the design, commercialization and use of processes and products feasible and economical while minimizing generation of pollution at the source and risk to human health and the environment.” This growth includes hybrid vehicles, windmills and less obvious sectors like smokestack industries whose plants need modernizing. Nelson adds that many green projects call for multidisciplinary approaches across electrical and mechanical engineering.
On the other hand, Nelson says, the growing sophistication of automation tools lessens the importance of large teams of designers. In coming years, fewer engineers will be needed for each project.
Though energy power distribution has traditionally been seen as a cold sector, Nelson says that as utilities roll out smart-grid technology (electricity transmission and distribution that uses robust two-way communications, advanced sensors and distributed computers to improve efficiency, reliability and safety) and as green-minded industries adopt electronics technology to improve energy efficiencies, industrial applications and systems and control might get a boost.
Missert notes that areas like testing and systems administration need engineers. “For a straight electrical or software engineer to walk into a pure R&D position is challenging,” he says. “You might have to accept a little less than what your college counselor says is the national average for entry-level jobs -- between $40,000 and $45,000 at large companies -- and maybe you can’t stay in the geographic area you know and are comfortable in. Branch out; it’s OK to go where you don’t know anyone. You may not be able to walk into a pure design engineering role -- you may have to start in a support role.”
Despite the economic downturn, IEEE Spectrum says campus hiring remains strong. The magazine reports that the average offer in 2008 was $56,512. Civil engineers averaged $49,427, while chemical engineers -- thanks to rising prices in petroleum products -- averaged $63,749. Employers are also offering signing bonuses averaging $4,450 for 2009 -- 25 percent higher than in 2008.