Not pre-med. Not business. Not computer science. The most popular college major choice for high school seniors surveyed by CareerBuilder—the majority of whom already have a career in mind—is engineering.
We can debate how many of these students will stick with engineering when they get their first homework assignments in college. But let’s assume most of them don’t move to less rigorous majors. Which engineering field should they choose? What are the most in-demand engineering jobs in the U.S. based on job growth, hires, and job posting activity? And which ones have the oldest workforces that will need to be replaced sometime in the next five to 10 years?
To answer these questions, we looked at labor market data and job postings analytics from EMSI for all 18 engineering occupations classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and all eight engineering technicians occupations (which are primarily middle-skill positions). Both categories, despite the difference in educational requirements and median pay, are adding a bunch of jobs post-recession and are key STEM occupation groups. But they tell a different story when comparing job postings from employers and hiring that’s taken place.
First, a few big-picture data trends:
The U.S. has approximately 1.6 million engineering jobs that pay $42 per hour in median wages. Civil engineers account for the most jobs of any engineering field (274,000 in 2014), followed closely by mechanical engineers (264,000) and industrial engineers (229,000). Those three engineering jobs, plus electrical engineers and electronics engineers, make up two-thirds of the American engineering workforce.
Job growth from 2010 to 2014 has been in the double digits in four occupations: petroleum engineers (30%), mining and geological engineers (12%), biomedical engineers (10%), and industrial engineers (10%). But every engineering occupation has added jobs, the most coming among mechanical engineers (21,500 new jobs since 2010). As a whole, engineering jobs have grown 7%.
The most-concentrated metropolitan area for engineers (among the 125 largest MSAs) is Huntsville, Alabama, which is home to a NASA flight center and other aerospace and military establishments. Huntsville has 5.1 times more engineers per capita than the national average. Next is San Jose (3.5 times the national average), Palm-Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida (2.9), and Detroit (2.75). In general, the South (Huntsville; Augusta, Georgia; Greenville, South Carolina) and the Rust Belt (Detroit, Dayton, etc.) are the densest areas for engineers.
The output of engineering graduates was at a standstill in the early 2000s. But since ’07, completions nationwide have shot up 33%, from 108,000 to 144,000.
Just over 20% of 2013 engineering grads were non-resident aliens, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, with the majority (113,620, or 79%) U.S. citizens. And about 80% were men.
Occupations with older workforces are potential targets for labor shortages. Not all workers 65 and above will retire at the same time, so the doom-and-gloom scenarios that get tossed around likely won’t become reality. Yet if the demand for workers continues and if a good-sized segment of that workforce is poised to retire, skills gaps are likely to become a real issue—especially at senior or management-level positions that are hard to recruit for. We’ve documented this trend in the skilled trades, and it’s just as relevant in engineering.
Two of the fastest-growing engineering fields also staff two of the largest proportions of older workers: industrial engineers and petroleum engineers. In both, 25% of currently employed workers are 55 years or older. Industrial engineers are vital to many manufacturing firms that struggle to find the right technically oriented talent, so the aging workforce is a threat. Petroleum engineering, meanwhile, has had a noticeable undersupply of graduates coming into the marketplace in the last few years, with just 1,600 completions in 2013 compared to EMSI’s yearly job openings estimate of 3,500.
The engineering occupation with the oldest workforce is also one of the smallest in terms of jobs: marine engineers and naval architects. Only 8,000 of these jobs are in the U.S., but 29% are 55 years or older. The youngest occupations, on the other side, are computer hardware engineers and agricultural engineers; just 12% of the current workforce in each is 55 or over.