Machine Design

A shortage of electrical engineers, or is it age discrimination?

During the space race and defense buildup beginning in the 1950s, the demand for electrical engineers picked up dramatically, and their salaries began to grow beyond those of other engineering disciplines. But forces change in our economy. By 1970 there were cutbacks in the space and defense industries, and these downsizings hit EEs especially hard. Things got so bad that some electrical engineers became militant about the unemployment problem, joining activist groups critical of the IEEE and accusing it of being the handmaiden of ruthless corporations.

Today the job situation has turned around, and if there ever was a hiring panic for EEs, we're seeing one today. But the profession - along with engineering in general - is tainted by a reputation for sluggish advancement and poor job security. When it comes to attracting students to engineering, the field is often avoided because it simply is too arduous. It requires an adult attention span, and wrong answers on a test can't be massaged into a passing grade by arguing with the professor.

Today, American universities are turning out about 40,000 EEs and computer scientists each year, but that is far below what corporate recruiters would like to see. The crop of graduates coming out of school is said to be about half what the U.S. needs. As a consequence, industry has had to contend with escalating salaries. But employers have also resorted to another and more controversial tactic - importing electrical engineers from overseas. However, the government has a quota on the number of professionals who can come into the United States to work. This year, the quota probably will be filled by the time you read this, and that means the flow of foreign EEs will be shut off. American manufacturers think this will lead to substantial lost business as vast amounts of product development will be delayed by a shortage of engineering manpower.

To compound the problem, industry also claims there is an acute shortage of people qualified to write software, a field to which many EEs gravitate and which still is closely associated with electrical and electronic engineering. So the computer industry and Silicon Valley are asking Congress to allow more foreign engineers and programmers into the country.

Amidst all this, middle-aged engineers say there is no shortage and that quotas for immigrant engineers and programmers shouldn't be increased. Quite the contrary, they say unemployment is their problem. One morbid joke is that the most common mid-career move now made by EEs is to a job behind the counter at Radio Shack.

So what is reality? Despite corporate claims of shortages, software firms actually hire only 2% of the people who respond to employment ads. And the unemployment rate for programmers above age 50 is around 17%.

The pattern is obvious. Corporations are, in fact, having a hard time finding EEs and programmers, but only because they want to hire them on stringent terms. And these terms include a distinct preference for youth.

There are all sorts of rationalizations offered for confining offers to young people, including their vitality and lack of family concerns. But what seems to lie at the core of the matter is money. Employers will pay $40,000 for new graduates, but they don't want to talk to anyone who is "overqualified" at that salary. And they definitely don't want to pay engineering salaries associated with mid-career and senior levels.

So that is why we have a shortage of EEs and programmers. There are qualified people around, but they are working at Radio Shack or pounding the pavement because they are over 50 years old.

Ronald Khol


TAGS: Technologies
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