Leland Teschler's Editorial: Good News/Bad News: A Labor Shortage, but Not for Engineers

July 21, 2009
With the unemployment rate at a 26-year-high point, it may seem odd to be talking about a looming labor shortage.

With the unemployment rate at a 26-year-high point, it may seem odd to be talking about a looming labor shortage. But that is what some demographers are predicting once the recession is behind us. They reason that the period directly following the Baby-Boomer generation was a time of a “baby bust.” As economies pick up, there won't be enough younger people to replace retiring Boomers, particularly in occupations that require knowledge and experience.

That may be good for individuals who want to work into what have traditionally been retirement years. With the skills of older folks in ever-shorter supply, they are less likely to be pushed out to pasture before they are ready.

But older engineers shouldn't begin celebrating just yet. It looks as though the occupations most in demand will have little to do with technical professions. So predicts the U.S. Dept. of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics in its projections for employment out to 2016. It figures employment growth will continue to concentrate in service industries. That’s great for loan counselors, social-service assistants, health-care aids, and gaming managers. All of these professions are expected to grow 25% or more.

But most engineers will be left out. The only engineering jobs expected to grow rapidly over the next decade are in software. The BLS estimates that employment in manufacturing will decline by 1.5 million jobs. And this prediction might underestimate the situation because it came before last fall’s economic meltdown. The only point of solace for those employed in actually making "stuff" is that this decline is half of the 3 million manufacturing jobs lost from 1996 to 2006. Meanwhile, jobs in goods-producing industries are expected to drop from 14.9 to 13.1% of total employment.

That isn't the end of the bad news. Four of the 10 industries with the largest expected wage and salary declines are in the manufacturing sector. They include motor-vehicle parts, wired telecommunications, and, interestingly, computer and peripheral equipment.

Consequently, the outlook for mechanical and electrical engineers isn't particularly inspiring. The BLS sees the number of mechanical-engineering positions rising only 4% in the next decade. For EEs, the figure is 5%. But MEs and EEs will have to put up with more managers. BLS says engineering-management positions will climb slightly more, up 7.3%.

Looking even further out, the picture doesn't get rosier. It is an interesting exercise to take the number of U.S. plant closings over the past five years and extrapolate the trend. When we applied a simple linear regression to these figures of declining facilities, we found that the line crossed zero in the year 2081. So in a mere 72 years, if present trends continue, your children and grandchildren will read about the last U.S. plant closing on a descendant of the Kindle.

For engineers interested in switching to a more growth-oriented profession, here's one, courtesy of the BLS: car-lot attendant. Despite the Green movement and its masstransit urgings, the BLS sees the ranks of car-lot attendants growing at a 13% clip, a rate exceeding that of most engineering disciplines.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

About the Author

Leland Teschler

Lee Teschler served as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design until 2014. He holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan; a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan; and an MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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