- Engineering graduates and potential job outlook.
- AI advancement.
- Potential impact of AI on engineering jobs.
Searching the internet for the "top engineering schools" will reveal a list of well-known institutions. Pick any one of them at random, and that list will inevitably include Caltech, the Georgia Institute of Technology and MIT. These colleges are coveted by those looking to attain an engineering degree, as they offer some of the best courses on the planet.
By the numbers, MIT produces 1,931 engineering graduates per year, while CalTech produces 1,419, and Georgia Tech graduates about 2,029 per year. Those numbers change yearly, but the goal is the same for every engineer—find jobs with the best tech companies on the planet, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and others.
In reality, getting a job with one of those tech giants is slim at best. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 139,800 engineering jobs are expected to be added to the work pool by 2026, a sharp decrease over previous years.
The BLS also states that the average growth rate of all engineering disciplines sits at just 5%, and if we take a closer look, mechanical engineering accounts for a 2% growth rate through 2031. While that sounds bad, consider electrical engineering, which will account for just 1.6% of growth through that same time period. That's the good news.
The Encroachment of AI
The bad news concerns artificial intelligence and its impact on the engineering profession. AI, in one form or another, has become integral in nearly every industry. It can be found in the medical, automotive, manufacturing, retail, construction and defense industries and even in the pocket of most people who carry smartphones. Big tech has also come together to develop AI that can benefit society. These include Google, Microsoft, Apple, Meta, Amazon and IBM, to name a few. With the recent advances in AI, some engineers fear their jobs will be run via automated systems.
That fear might not be unfounded, as a study from the University of Oxford shows that AI has the potential to impact 47% of U.S. employment over the next decade or two (see figure). Factor in novel platforms such as ChatGPT, Google Bard and Microsoft Bing, and the outlook of AI replacing engineers becomes more of a reality.
ChatGPT has been used for a surprising number of projects, including assisting with coding and debugging; finding and generating data sets; data analysis; designing electronic circuits; assisting in PCB design; and more. While these AI platforms are still in their infancy, the rate at which their development has boomed is quickly becoming a concern.
Jobs at Risk?
Those tech companies mentioned earlier are investing heavily in AI development, and Google alone has 20 AI-powered projects in the pipeline for 2023 alone. This comes on the cusp of recent mass layoffs from Amazon (27,000), Meta (21,000) and Google's parent company, Alphabet (12,000).
Do these numbers signal increased job losses in favor of developing advanced AI in the near future? Possibly—the idea of automated systems to handle monotonous workloads or entire projects isn't out of the question. We've done it time and time again for centuries. Where would we be without the Industrial Revolution, the development of vaccines and the technological advances that place computers in our pockets?
So, is it possible for engineers to be replaced by AI-driven systems? Yes, but it's not likely to happen anytime soon. According to a 2016 report from Stanford University, there’s no imminent threat of workers being replaced, but rather AI will be developed to provide useful apps to help those workers. Although routine work and simple tasks may be automated, there’s enormous potential to benefit engineers in every field.
Those with a STEM background will still be in high demand, and many jobs will require human/computer collaboration. Software engineers will be needed to create and test AI systems, and advanced AI will allow engineers to become more efficient and solve a wide range of issues. That said, only time will tell if AI will replace the engineering job pools or be used as an invaluable tool to assist in project creation.
This article appeared in Electronic Design, an affiliate publication to Machine Design.