A chemical engineer and a civil engineer tell CareerBuilder.com about training and employment trends in their respective fields. Infrastructure and energy issues are among those discussed. The effect of globalization is also a key issue, as research and development is done more inexpensively overseas, and engineers trained both here and abroad are doing the work.
When a large-magnitude earthquake struck central Illinois on April 18, 2008, drinking glasses clinked together in Chicago high rises – but that was the worst of the damage. Buildings, bridges, and other parts of the infrastructure were unharmed, thanks to the civil engineers who designed them. These types of civil engineers are in increasing demand, according to Dr. Bryan Hubbard, director of industrial relations at the Purdue University School of Civil Engineering.
According to Hubbard, infrastructure is a major growth area in civil engineering today, and increased spending worldwide on infrastructure bears this out. The state of California is funding major improvements to restore highways and transit systems, as well as schools, housing, parks, levees, and water supply systems. Current improvements were funded by a $42 billion bond measure in 2006, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing for substantially more spending as part of a 10-year plan.
The European Union is spending $10 billion annually to rebuild the lands of its latest members, including former Soviet bloc countries like Romania, where infrastructure was neglected for decades.
Beyond infrastructure, Dr. Hubbard reports that a renewed interest in nuclear power generation. As countries like France demonstrate the benefits of clean nuclear power, and as safety issues are steadily addressed, nuclear power is again a hot field. Major corporations like Westinghouse, GE, and Shaw Group all have active contracts for U.S. nuclear power plants in 2008, and Bechtel helped bring back a nuclear power facility that had been dormant since 1985 in Browns Ferry, Alabama.
Earlier generations viewed nuclear plants as a danger, but according to Dr. Hubbard, today's engineering students see "carbon-based energy – petroleum and coal – as bad, and nuclear power as good." Hubbard also sees the more stringent standards required by nuclear technology as a positive trend for civil engineering in a general sense.
Civil engineers work on a large scale, but chemical engineers at the other end of the size spectrum see growth trends too. Professor Andrew Gellman, head of the Chemical Engineering Department at Carnegie-Mellon University, has seen significant growth in the kinds of jobs created by chemical engineering trends.
"Twenty or 30 years ago, most chemical engineers had two basic choices. They worked in the chemical industry for companies like Dow or DuPont, or they worked in the petroleum industry for oil companies. Today the choices are much broader, and involve fields as diverse as food, biomedical, and semiconductors," Gellman said.
He estimates that in the last five years, one-third to one-half of all chemical engineering schools have changed their names to reflect the movement from traditional chemical engineering to chemical and bioengineering. Gellman sees energy as the number one growth area in chemical engineering as we attempt to replace oil in both of its key roles as an energy source and as a feed stock for the plastics, textiles, and numerous other materials we make from it.
Solar energy will likely become the best new source of electricity as the technology improves and costs are reduced. However, jobs in solar energy production make up a small percentage of hires for chemical engineers at present. In time, employment in the bioengineering field is more likely to grow as engineers learn to process biomass into a variety of materials currently created from oil, according to Gellman.
Globalization is also a major trend in engineering. Just as the U.S. has turned to Asia as a source of cheap labor and products, a trend is growing to outsource research and development there as well. For the first time, American-educated engineers are returning to their native India or China, whereas five years ago, according to Gellman, "none of them would have thought of starting their careers there." Many American companies, particularly those in pharmaceuticals or other intense cost-pressure industries, are increasingly moving engineering functions to Asia. This creates opportunities for engineers who are U.S.-trained and based.
It is also true that America loses foreign-born engineers due to an immigration policy limiting the number of foreign students who are allowed to stay once they receive advanced degrees at American universities. Many engineers who would prefer to stay in the U.S. will be sent back home because they are losers in the H1B visa lottery that takes place each year in April. A total of 65,000 visas are available this year, but these are spread out over a wide variety of disciplines.
The loss of foreign-born engineering graduates also creates a drain on talent and innovation for U.S. business, and this may represent a greater loss than a simple lack of trained employees.
While outsourcing takes some pressure off of American labor markets that are attempting to hire a sufficient number of engineers, there is some question as to whether there actually is a labor shortage. Those who maintain that the engineering shortage is a myth point to stable starting salaries, and say that the movement of engineering jobs overseas is not because of a lack of engineers here, but because costs are so much lower overseas.
In the 1990s, 40 percent of engineering work hours were performed in the U.S., but it is predicted that by 2010 that number will decrease to 10 percent, as an hour of overseas engineering work costs only 20 percent of what it costs here.
For all types of employers who need to hire new grads in any engineering field, the money must be there, but employment is based on much more than salary. Health benefits, ongoing education, a collaborative work environment, and a varied and explicit career path are all important factors for a new generation of engineers. Foreign-born engineers wishing to remain in the U.S. need an employer to sponsor them as part of the H1B visa program, so employers must aggressively recruit and champion a number of foreign nationals with only a hope of them winning the visa lottery.
Most importantly, for engineers and American industry to progress, a closer tie between industry and universities must exist. The federal government formerly funded a large-scale research and development project in the U.S., but those dollars are now significantly diminished. Companies and universities must continue to form partnerships and consortia in order to produce new research activity and meet the needs of a changing global economy that is multilingual, multicultural and multinational.
The housing market has been brought to a halt. Falling home prices, tighter lending criteria, and general economic recession trends have all attributed to the current state of the industry. Employment options are more limited than ever for workers formerly employed in mortgage brokerage or residential home sales.
Effective healthcare in the United States is threatened by a shortage of nurses. One way to reduce this shortage is to retain experienced and over-50 nurses. To do this, employers must meet the specific needs of these nurses and address issues that affect their morale and job satisfaction.
Generation Y, the fastest-growing segment of the American work force today, is also the least understood group for many employers. This generation is a unique group in both their demands and demeanor, and they are taking on a very different set of obstacles than their parents or grandparents did in their younger years.