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Software employment grows 45% in 10 years, as angst in engineering grows

Patrick Thibodeau, Sharon Machlis | July 23, 2013
One unemployed electrical engineer, whose wife challenged President Obama on H-1Bs, is back at work.

"For electrical engineers, unless you are in the actual design of circuits, then you're not in demand," said Wedel, arguing that much of the job loss in the field is due to the closing of fabrication facilities.

Source IEEE-USA based on analysis of U.S. labor data. Note: Methodology is slightly different for annual and quarterly data.

Electrical engineers "are the life blood of our industry, whether they are designing, manufacturing or selling our products," Darla Whitaker, senior vice president, worldwide Human Resources, for Texas Instruments, testified during a 2011 Congressional hearing. Whitaker urged Congress to do more to improve immigration.

Wedel's former industry, semiconductors, hasn't recovered at all as an employer. In 2001, there were more than 200,000 people working in the semi-conductor industry. That number was less than 100,000 by 2010, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute study on guest workers by Hal Salzman, a public policy professor at Rutgers; Daniel Kuehn, an economics doctoral candidate at American University; and Lindsay Lowell, director of Policy Studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University.

Their study argues that that the "United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations."

Overall employment among electrical engineers dropped from 385,000 in 2001 to 335,000 in 2012, according to an IEEE-USA analysis of U.S. labor data. In contrast, software developer jobs soared to 1.1 million from 745,000 in the same time period.

During the entire decade of the 1980s, unemployment for electrical engineers never rose above 2% -- even though the overall unemployment rate was at times as high as 10%, said Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and researcher of tech immigration issues.

Source IEEE-USA based on analysis of U.S. labor data. Note: Methodology is slightly different for annual and quarterly data.

"The performance over the recent decades calls into question whether it's worth investing in such a career," said Hira. "Workers should expect to be laid off, and for substantial periods of time," he said. "The professions are much more risky than they were in the past, yet the rewards haven't shown up in wage increases to balance out that increased risk."

Hira sees decreasing demand for workers as a key problem.

Over the last decade, IT employment has shot up and down, and the only tech occupation that appears to have recovered to full employment is software developer, said Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute.

Other tech occupations (listed in the accompanying chart), "have not even rebounded to what they were right before the Great Recession started," he said.


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