If you are to believe the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), now is not a good time to be an engineer. At least not if you are looking for a job. Nor will it be favorable in the foreseeable future. The BLS tells us that the average growth rate inclusive of all occupations sits at 5 percent. However, when you zoom in on mechanical engineering, they predict just a 2 percent growth rate through 2031. Not great, but not as bad as electrical engineering. According to the BLS, that field has an expected 1.6 percent growth rate through 2031. Electronics engineering is at 6 percent, but according to the BLS, for many engineers, the outlook is worse than the average and will remain that way for several years.
“That just tells you how out of touch the government is,” said Dino Corrao, engineering staffing manager at Enser, when he heard those numbers. Corrao said he’s seeing high demand for engineers of all types and doesn’t expect the market to cool anytime soon. “Although the current national unemployment average is 3.7 percent, it is probably close to zero for engineers,” he said.
Corrao attributes much of that demand to the onshoring of manufacturing in the US. “[Onshoring] has been a good thing for the manufacturing industry and the US as a whole. COVID and the supply chain issues have really highlighted the need for the US to move in this direction, which will benefit the industry in the long run,” said Corrao.
He explained that during the decades it took to offshore much of US manufacturing to foreign countries, those US manufacturing workers, engineers included, transitioned into other fields. Fewer jobs meant students weren’t interested in manufacturing-related engineering careers. These factors all culminated in the situation we have today in which companies are finding it challenging to fill engineering jobs.
To make matters worse, Corrao said that when COVID hit and factories shut down, some experienced engineers in their late 50s and early 60s who were financially stable took early retirement, further widening the gap between open positions and the engineers available to fill them.
According to Corrao, it’s not uncommon for companies to have a job open for months. Meanwhile, the typical time for an engineer to find a job is less than two weeks, and many candidates are considering multiple offers and even counteroffers.
George Santos, director of talent delivery and head of marketing at 180 Engineering, also sees a high demand for engineering and technical talent. He said that while his company lost 70-80 percent of open rolls they were trying to fill when COVID hit, those jobs came roaring back in just a few months.
“Competition is really on the employer side,” explained Santos. “There's just simply not enough engineers to go around to meet the demand.” He expects 2023 will be no different.
What Sectors Need Engineers?
Narrowing things down, Santos said he’s seeing a high demand for manufacturing and quality engineers. Following that is a need for controls or automation engineers. Santos noted that even software engineers, a popular career choice, are in demand.
“I’ve had clients asking us to fill one opening but had a good runner-up candidate. They didn’t want to lose them, so they opened another position,” said Santos. “And unheard of years ago, employers are now welcoming introductions to good candidates even if they don’t have open positions."
Santos said we’re now in what he calls a “U-shaped market.” There are a lot of engineers coming out of college with minimal experience, and on the other end, there are a lot of high-salaried, high-experience engineers nearing retirement. Most of the jobs he is being asked to fill are for engineers with anywhere from three to fifteen years of experience. “That is where you find the smallest talent pool,” he said.
Corrao at Enser said that while all engineering jobs could be considered hot right now, he’s seeing a large number of job openings in the Defense and Aerospace sector for electrical, manufacturing (CAD drafter and design engineers, project engineers), mechanical, and embedded software engineers.
“If I were forced to pick one industry that isn’t super hot right now, it would probably be automotive due to supply chain shortages and plant closures during COVID,” said Corrao. “A lot of that industry is automated to an extent but still requires a lot of human beings in the process. With plant closures and the shortage of integrated circuits that go in a lot of these smart vehicles these days, I think that really caused a crunch.”
Does that mean engineers currently in the automotive field chose to back the wrong horse and are out of luck? Not necessarily.
“While candidates used to need industry-specific experience, that is less the case today. Unless the experience is very specific to their role, for example, regulatory knowledge in the medical device field,” said Santos. “However, if a company is looking for an electrical engineer, they are not going to be super picky because there aren’t enough of them coming out of college.”
Santos tells clients coming to him that the person they want most likely already has a job. Then, if the client finds someone they like, they should not hem and haw but continue to move them through the interview process. That is because there’s a very high likelihood that when they finally get to the offer stage, that candidate will probably have several opportunities in front of them.
What Engineering Skills Are in Demand?
So, if industry-specific experience isn’t required, what do organizations look for in a candidate?
Santos said that many manufacturers are looking for an injection of energy. “I’ve had multiple requests for junior engineers who are eager and willing to learn. They want you to be hands-on and take your laptop onto the shop floor, not just sit at a desk. They want you to talk to folks.”
Santos said that soft skills are just as essential as technical skills. Employers are looking for engineers who can communicate effectively and have a good level of emotional intelligence required to understand influence and to be able to sell an idea.
“More and more employers want engineers who can talk to customers and give them a tour of the plant. Or if you’re trying to lead process improvement (i.e., continuous improvement engineers, manufacturing engineers, and quality engineers), can you sell an idea or get someone to change their behavior?”
For example, a quality engineer may have to approach the production manager and convince them their team needs to change how they work to eliminate a defect. Often that production manager is in a different department, and they probably have seniority over the engineer. Therefore, communication and influence are vital skills that must be demonstrated in the interview.
Regarding technical skills, Santos is seeing a demand for ISO, cross-functional team member experience, Six Sigma, CAD experience, and LEAN manufacturing. He recommends that if candidates are putting together their resumes, they should include essential details like which PLM or CAD systems they’ve used, what type of products they used, and any industry certification or training.
Perks and Benefits for Engineers
Given the market, what kind of perks can engineering candidates expect? Corrao says companies will have to pay higher salaries than anticipated for many positions, offer relocation assistance, good health insurance, extra vacation and personal time off, and even flex work schedules. Corrao doesn’t think there will be a massive shift into a fully remote work environment, as many engineering jobs require the employee to be on site. But a mix of the two might be adopted by more and more companies.
However, Santos thinks employers need to consider remote positions where possible. “With the advancement of cloud computing and tools available for engineers to collaborate with anyone anywhere in the world, there isn’t as much need to work on site.”
He also recommends that employers get efficient with their hiring process. This is not a market for analysis paralysis. If you can’t decide quickly, you’ll lose a candidate.
What’s the Impact of Tech Layoffs?
For employers hoping mass layoffs in tech will create an influx of engineers to fill all the open jobs, think again.
“In spite of the softening macroeconomic environment, you still see a lot of tension in the market for skills and talent,” said Forrester vice president Frederic Giron speaking at the company’s APAC Predictions 2023 event in Singapore. He explained that despite companies like Meta, Twitter, and Amazon laying off thousands of people, it’s not enough to fill the gap.
“We need hundreds of thousands of people,” said Giron, suggesting that companies must think more strategically about how they can access talent, whether that’s tapping into freelancers, vocational schools, or automating processes.
Greater Support Needed for Women Engineers and Others Who Left the Field
The competitive market on the employer side might also entice women to re-enter the engineering workforce. The Society for Women in Engineering lists on its website 25 re-entry programs for women (and men) who have been out of the workforce for two years or more and are looking to resume their careers.
However, companies need to demonstrate a culture more supportive of female engineers and provide advancement opportunities to ensure they don’t miss out on some excellent engineering candidates.
Roberta Rincon, associate director of research at the Society of Women Engineers, wrote in Machine Design that most women who left the STEM workforce and, more specifically, the engineering field, did not leave to care for children. Most actually remained in the workforce but moved into another field. They did so because of working conditions and organizational climate.
And it’s not just female engineers who are motivated by value outside of a high salary and title. Santos recommends that companies do better at marketing and selling the role they want to fill. “Candidates want to know what you’re working on, what’s exciting about it, what kinds of technologies the candidate will get to learn and use, and what the culture is like,” he said.
That means employers are no longer the only interviewer in the room. Engineering candidates are going to be grilling them as well.
What Should You Do?
Finally, for you engineers consider making a move, it’s essential to understand what type of company you want to work for to help narrow down that choice. Santos said that while startups often attract a lot of talent coming right out of school, midsized manufacturing companies could also be a rewarding choice.
He said that big organizations, while they have a lot of resources, tend to be very siloed, and engineers could find themselves working on one specific thing for teams of teams. That could limit your ability to move jobs in the future due to a lack of overall experience.
“Midsized organizations provide a good mix. It’s an environment that’s big enough so there will be plenty to do and a variety of things to work on, and it’s small enough where you can have a personal relationship with your manager.”
Whatever side of the gap you’re on, you have your work cut out for you in 2023. Employers need to dig deep and examine company culture not only to attract but also to identify the candidate who would be a good fit for the team. Meanwhile, job seekers should update their resumes regularly and not be afraid to let their geek flags fly. If candidates are working on a particular hobby project that can demonstrate their passion and skills, by all means, they should talk about it.