The employment scene for professionals of all sorts becomes more volatile with each decade. In engineering, graduates of past generations could reasonably look forward to a linear career trajectory characterized by upward mobility and advancement. A typical career back then might allow the graduate to move from strict technical work to creative design work, then on to technical management, and perhaps to general management – often within one firm. In contrast, today’s engineering graduate is being told that a typical work pattern will likely involve six or eight or more major job changes during the working lifetime. What is not being said is that such job changes will often be lateral moves, not career progressions. The hiring of engineering graduates by non-traditional employers, seeking their problem solving and analytical skills for resale to consulting clients, exacerbates the problem. This paper examines the causes of such changes in the engineering employment pattern, and offers suggestions for dealing with the troubling aspects of the current employment market place.
The problem as seen by the profession
Engineering publications, as well as the popular press, have been discussing the perils of the job scene for at least fifteen years. Bitter titles such as “The age of expendability” 5, “Job security is an oxymoron” 3, and “What happened to the great American job?” 4 underscore the painful realization among experienced professionals that the world of engineering employment has changed in the recent past, and not for the better. What is new today is that the problem is seen as affecting many professions in the United States, and that some of the causes are linked with powerful international economic trends that cannot be countered easily.
Symptoms of the problem
Engineering school enrollments in the United States have been dropping for the past several years, and are down some twenty percent from their high points in the 1980’s. Several elements have contributed to this decline. One factor is that engineering curricula have been increasingly seen by prospective students as very difficult and not very student friendly. Bright math and science oriented high school students often have found alternative paths to the employment market that are less demanding – such as computer science, integrated technology programs, and business programs. Another major factor is that the technology job market for engineering graduates has been far less attractive in recent years, compared with the hot market during the big growth years of the electronic and telecommunications fields.
The first of these factors, difficulty of the course of study in engineering, has been addressed somewhat effectively by many engineering schools. Having been criticized by several major reports a decade ago, the engineering curriculum has been modified at many schools to make it more attractive, effective, and student-friendly. Changes such as inversion of the curriculum to put some engineering subjects in the first two years, design projects throughout the curriculum often including the freshman year, diversity in math coverage to include probability/statistics and finite math, integration of math and science materials with the engineering curriculum, use of educational technology on the classroom, broadening of the subject matter to include non-technical courses, and teamwork opportunities have enhanced the undergraduate curriculum significantly at many schools. In many cases these changes were led by Coalitions of engineering schools funded by the National Science Foundation. These changes have not been universal across engineering education in the Unites States, however, and have not been sufficient to reverse the enrollment decline.
The second factor, less attractive job and career opportunities in technical fields, has led to more complex situations. Several fields other than technical careers have opened up...