How are engineers jobless? The 8 Reasons

How are engineers jobless? Many factors contribute to jobless engineers. Engineers are not immune to job loss and hardships.

The following are the typical reasons for job loss in all fields of engineering:

  1. Weakening economies
  2. Declining company revenue
  3. Shrinking engineering fields
  4. Oversupply of engineers
  5. Globalization
  6. Artificial Intelligence (AI) / Automation
  7. Lean employment models
  8. Mindset of engineers

We’ll go over each of these 8 reasons, to better understand how engineers become jobless.

#1 Weakening economies

job loss for engineers

The economy heavily impacts the engineering job market. Most recently, the following events weakened the U.S. job market:

  • Dotcom bubble burst (2001)
  • Great Recession (2009)
  • COVID-19 pandemic (2020)

With each of these events, more so the first two, engineers flooded the job market. To top it off, every year countless new graduates enter the job market. This spikes competition for a limited number of jobs.

The following are job loss figures from the 3 above listed economic dips:

U.S. job loss eventEvent yearTotal job loss count
Doctom burst20012 million
Great recession20092.6 million
COVID-19 great lockdown202022 million

2009 Great recession impact on traditional engineering jobs

Traditional engineering fields are civil, power, mechanical, and structural. These are fields, which involve public construction. Engineers here, typically design for future demand. For example, designing and constructing the following with a forecast for increased population:

  • Homes
  • Water pump stations
  • Water and wastewater treatment plants
  • Roads and bridges
  • Substations
  • Transmission lines

Now, these engineers don’t immediately see the impact of a weakened economy. Let’s play out the 2009 great recession to illustrate.

As home foreclosures were on the rise, banks began to fail. At the same time, cities saw their revenues decrease, due to unpaid property tax payments. Soon, public agencies halted all expansion and improvement projects.

The traditional engineers then had nothing to design. I remember in 2009, work quickly dried up in the power industry. Projects were few and far between, with projects limited to emergency retrofit designs.

#2 Declining company revenue

Companies not surprisingly hire less, when they’re financially struggling. So, it’s a double strike against jobless engineers in difficult economic times. Engineers get laid off and then they can’t find new jobs because no one is hiring.

Even more, the struggles of one company will impact other working engineers too. For example, a struggling company would do the following:

  • Spend less on software from other tech companies. In return, the revenue of other companies will fall and layoffs will ensue.
  • Contract out fewer engineers.
  • Freeze infrastructure upgrades, which then reduces traditional engineering work.

To top it off, struggling companies don’t want to train new engineers in a down economy. Training engineers is a sunken cost in the short term. Whereas an experienced engineer can hit the ground running.

#3 Shrinking engineering fields

Look into the future, as some engineering fields are gradually shrinking.

For example, mining and petroleum engineering are shrinking industries. Not to say you can’t find a job, but it’s becoming more difficult. Especially, as an inexperienced engineer.

To illustrate, below is data for undergraduate enrollment in petroleum engineering. You can see how year after year enrollment is dropping as renewable energy advances.

School yearFull-time undergrad enrollment in petroleum engineering (U.S.)Part-time undergrad enrollment in petroleum engineering (U.S.)
20158,232855
20166,397662
20174,813540
20183,694541

My point is, don’t blindly choose a field expecting to land a job because you’re an “engineer”.  Engineers are a dime a dozen, with many unemployed. Instead, choose your field wisely, and maximize your skills to try to become a 10x engineer.

#4 Oversupply of engineers 

Engineering graduates are flooding the market more than ever. With more engineering schools opening, oversaturation in some fields is a palpable problem.

School YearNumber of U.S. undergrad students enrolledU.S. populationEnrollment ratio to U.S. population
2009427,503306,800,0000.139%
2010450,685309,300,0000.146%
2011471,730311,600,0000.151%
2012504,690313,900,0000.161%
2013543,942316,100,0000.172%
2014568,452318,400,0000.179%
2015610,461320,700,0000.190%
2016601,266323,100,0000.186%
2017619,095325,100,0000.19%
2018622,502327,200,0000.19%

To point out, more fields of engineering are now created too. So, naturally, more people will enroll in engineering. But the number of engineers is growing even compared to the increasing U.S. population. You can see this in the above table.

This all leads to greater job competition. Then throw globalization and you can see the problem.

#5 Globalization

Many engineers from around the globe want to come to America to work.

So, you’re not only competing with engineers in your own backyard anymore. But, with countless engineers from around the globe. The age-old supply and demand curve then goes into effect.

Important Note: immigrating engineers create many new U.S. businesses. In return, immigrants create many new jobs as well. Currently, the U.S. issues 85,000 H-1B visas annually.

#6 Artificial Intelligence (AI) / Automation

automation taking over engineer jobs

AI and automation are fast entering all parts of human life. In the coming decade, I see the following changes taking place:

  • Entry-level positions: many entry-level positions will go away. Especially, since these positions are primarily repetitive type work. And repetitive type work is most easily automated.
  • Fewer engineers: one engineer will overtake the role of five engineers. This one engineer will manage several AI-run machines.
  • Elimination of certain engineer positions: certain types of engineering positions will go away. For example, the role of product engineers. Instead, an AI-driven website will deliver product information to customers.

AI will create new engineering jobs too. But, the jobs will become more specialized. This transition will weed out many lower-level and weak-performing engineers.

#7 Lean employment models

Employers are changing their hiring practices. They’re using contractors more and more versus hiring full-time employees. Also, they’re outsourcing to cheaper parts of the U.S., and even other countries. They’ve made these changes for the following reasons:

  • New state employment laws, lead to increased liability for full-time employees.
  • To operate leaner to increase reserves, as a hedge against unstable economies.
  • To increase profits by cutting low-performing employees. In return, not pay for extra benefits such as health care and 401(k) matching.
  • Better adapt to fast-changing markets to maximize profits. It’s easier to hire contractors to handle spikes in demand versus full-time employees. Because once demand drops, the company will remove the contractors from their payroll.

Today, companies operate with more risk. This added risk then leads to more creative employment models. According to Deloitte’s 2016 global outsourcing survey, the following are reasons companies outsource:

Reasons for outsourcingPercentage
Cost cutting59%
Enable focus on core business57%
Solve capacity issues47%
Improve service quality31%
Critical to business needs28%
Access to intellectual capital28%
Manage business environment17%

#8 Mindset of engineers

Levels exist in engineering. No different than how you see levels in your favorite sport’s league. For example, in the NBA you have the following player tier levels:

  • Superstars
  • Stars
  • Role players
  • Benchwarmers

In engineering, some engineers are highly motivated while some lack ambition. Those who lack ambition, want to only collect a paycheck while doing the bare minimum. Their mindset in return greatly contributes to their employment prospects. To illustrate, let’s review two engineers on both extremes.

Engineer #1 (lacks ambition)

Activities while employed:

  • Does the bare minimum to get by
  • Produces average work
  • Doesn’t keep up with the latest technologies and advancements

Job search activities:

  • Submits a couple of same-city job applications every week
  • Collects unemployment while playing video games all-day

Engineer #2 (highly motivated)

Activities while employed:

  • Goes the extra mile to always produce high-quality work
  • Asks the boss for extra work to never have downtime
  • Always is available to lend a helping hand
  • Constantly self-researches to learn more

Job search activities:

  • Treats the job search like a job, by applying to 10 or more jobs daily across the country
  • Strengthens resume by learning new skills and taking online courses
  • Travels to job recruitment events
  • Asks for outside help in finding a job
  • Brainstorms starting a business as a backup plan

In short, the job market is quickly changing. You can’t get your engineering degree, and then expect employers to knock on your door. You need to hustle and set yourself apart from your peers. Because if you’re anything like Engineer #1, you’ll more than likely stay jobless for a long period of time.

An engineer’s passion

Equally important is an engineer’s passion. Too many people become engineers for the following wrong reasons:

  • Prestige
  • Money
  • Peer pressure
  • Desire to work in cool cities

But, the most important factor is passion!

Personally, whether I make money or not, I want to learn about engineering. I just love it!

This is the level of passion you need. Especially, with the high level of competition today. Without a genuine interest in your field, you’ll fight an uphill battle.

Important Note: the education system has many shortcomings. You pay so much tuition, yet you’re not taught real-world engineering skills. This is why you need a passion for self-learning.

“How are engineers jobless?” wrap up

Engineers aren’t immune to job loss. In fact, engineers need to adapt to the job market to survive. Because finding employment will become more difficult, moving into the future.

But, more and more of the world is becoming dependent on engineers. So, if you maximize your engineering skills, you’ll have many cool jobs to choose from. Even more, great business opportunities will come your way.

What do you think is the best way to make yourself employable in the future? How do you approach your job search?

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