Engineers still face tough market, but is there reason for optimism?

Engineers have taken a big employment hit in this economy and we’ve wondered aloud if that will hurt the state’s long-term economic health.

On Thursday, we’ll be looking for some evidence of a jobs turnaround in manufacturing, a major employer of engineers, when the latest Minnesota jobless numbers are released.

First, though,we checked in with Mary Detloff, executive director of the Minnesota Society of Professional Engineers. She’s updated us a couple of times this year on the state of the business. “The entire design and construction industry has been hit hard,” she told us this week, but, “in my opinion, the general mood is more optimistic.”

From what I’ve been hearing from engineers and other association colleagues, the engineering community in large part is still feeling the effects of the tough economy. However, I have heard of companies who are doing fine, and we’ve started seeing a few job postings here and there from those that are hiring again.

There are other companies who are running very lean, and some that are still forced to lay off employees. So I would say the industry has not yet recovered, yet I don’t get quite the same less-than-optimistic vibe from engineers, both from those who are working/looking for work and those who are in positions to hire.

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The sectors that hire the most engineers — manufacturing, construction, transportation — have been among the worst hit in Minnesota with more than 70,000 jobs lost the past year.

So while Detloff’s insights and other stories give us reason to hope, that job loss leaves a lot of ground to make up.

Stories like Erik Hare’s still keep us concerned about the future.

Hare, a source in MPR’s Public Insight Network, worked for 16 years as a chemical engineer before taking a company buyout in 2003. Since then, “I had a few things here and there in the field, some temp lab work and a year doing research at the U before I gave up on it completely. My name is on nine patents, two listed as first name, but those and $3 won’t even buy you a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s.”

He’s held a variety of jobs since then, including writer, salesman and internet consultant.

Of his engineering class of 40 graduating in 1987 from Carnegie Mellon University, Hare says he knows of only 12 still working as engineers in some capacity. “I’d love to do it again, but there are no jobs in the field.”

He doesn’t see a place for engineers in the American economy given how much of the U.S. manufacturing base has gone elsewhere. “I have some hope,” he adds, “that there will be room for those of us who want to be productive. But it may be too late for me.”

  • Jim Sauder

    I didn’t even know Eric was a Chemical Engineer! He’s pretty modest, but some of his work is really mind-blowing. His series on “systemic connections” is particularly thought provoking. He’s definately one sharp cookie who wants to contribute something to the world but the economy hasn’t been too kind to him. I’m sure there are a lot more like him out there, too. The lack of jobs in science and engineering means we have a lot of talent going to waste. Eric might have some hope but we can’t keep this up forever without losing our place as a nation.

  • Paul Tosto

    Jim, thanks. It’s unreal to me that we’re even talking about engineers being unable to find jobs. I’m not a sky-is-falling guy but given the projected older, shrinking workforce in Minnesota and the deep manufacturing jobs hole the recession’s created, who’s going to build the state’s future economic wealth? We don’t know yet. That’s a little scary.

    Paul / MinnEcon

  • John Olson

    My impression (rightly or wrongly) has been that while the production of many items has shifted into other countries with lower wages, etc., the “know how” to design and test new and improved products still frequently resides here in the U.S. Advances in medical technology would be an example. Even though a company like, say, 3M manufactures products across the globe, a lot of the R&D still takes place here.

    I would also think the relationship between manufacturers and universities in the U.S. is also a factor in some engineering disciplines.

    I’m also curious to know the impact stimulus funds have had in civil engineering. Since many of those projects are construction-related, I would think that civil engineers would be less impacted(?) New infrastructure (or the replacement of aging infrastructure) would seem to require some level of civil engineering services.

  • Annalise Cudahy

    I don’t think that we can rely on research to get us out of this. Look at any grad school in engineering – most of the students there are from China or other nations. Losing the line jobs was only the first step. A lot of research has to take place near the manufacturing plant because many complex things require specialized knowledge to scale up. As foreigners have taken knowledge away from our universities, that now often resides overseas along with the manufacturing jobs.

    If we didn’t have a long decline in manufacturing it might only be a small problem, but it isn’t. Our talent is being wasted on paper pushing jobs that pay better but require no technical skill at all. We are paying for a very long term problem now and it probably won’t turn around soon. I’m not optimistic at all.

  • Paul Tosto

    John, thanks. I asked about stimulus fund and the potential effect on engineers in the spring and the general response I heard was that it really wasn’t putting a ton of people back to work. Given the focus on “shovel ready” road and transit projects I expected better times for civil engineers but again I don’t think it’s happened. The reality is MnDOT has pulled back significantly on early estimates / counts of jobs created by the stimulus.

    Minnesota’s been in a great position these decades because of education, quality of life, research opportunities, etc. The question is can that be sustained? I’m not saying it disappears completely. But I am wondering if the growth slows to the point where that comparative advantage can’t pay for the quality of life that brought and kept people here in the first place. Paul / MinnEcon

  • Paul Tosto

    Annalise, thanks. As I mentioned to John Olson, I don’t think it disappears completely but manufacturing’s taken a huge hit in Minnesota in this recession — 40,000+ jobs lost in the past year. Arguably, that sector’s been single biggest creator of economic wealth in Minnesota the past 30 years, paying for the quality of life we enjoy. But in a slow growth economy and with a labor force expected to grown only marginally in the next 25 years, who’s going to create the wealth to sustain (i.e. pay for) that quality of life?

    I’m not pessimistic. But I can’t answer the question, either. Paul / MinnEcon

  • John Olson

    Annalise: Good points. In my years at the U of M, the engineering programs were loaded as well with foreign graduate students as well and that’s over 30 years ago now. What is interesting is that those foreign-born students continue to come to the U.S. to get their advanced education. Obviously, we have something those countries do not. Moreover, I would be interested in seeing what percentage of these foreign students actually end up residing in the U.S. instead of returning home.

    I would also add that in certain areas (like biomedical engineering) the product(s) developed have to meet U.S. government standards before they can be produced en masse. Sure, the R&D can be done outside the U.S., but the amount of bureaucracy needed for approval is less if it is developed here and not overseas.