On the eve of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Wednesday, a speech that's expected to focus on the need for jobs, the nation's largest engineering association is warning that the latest jobs data is "discouraging" for engineering.
The IEEE-USA, which is part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, believes some engineers are pulling out of the field and taking jobs in other areas or leaving the workforce because of the weak economy, based on its most recent analysis of government labor data.
The engineering group argues that engineering employment is a bellwether of national economic vitality. If companies are to create new products and systems, then they will need to hire engineers do the work.
Among electrical engineers, the unemployment rate dropped from 7.3 percent to 5.2 percent from the third to fourth quarter. Good news? Not necessarily, because the total pool of employed electrical engineers declined in that same period by 3 percent, from 331,000 to 321,000.
Gordon Day, past president of IEEE-USA, said in an e-mail response to questions: "In the fourth quarter, there were about 10,000 more electrical and electronics engineers leaving their jobs ( layoffs , resignations, retirements, etc.) than there were new hires," he said.
But even though many of those 10,000 were added to the population of unemployed electrical engineers, many others stopped describing themselves as unemployed. Some have found jobs in other fields or retired while "some will have just stopped looking for employment in engineering," he said.
"The unemployment rate is the ratio of the number who describe themselves as unemployed to the number who describe themselves as employed," and to some extent the numerator and denominator can change independently, explained Day.
Similarly, the unemployment rate for software engineers fell slightly from 4.7 percent to 4.1 percent, but the total pool of employed software engineers fell from 970,000 to 952,000, nearly a 2 percent decline.
"It appears that electrical engineers who lost their jobs in early 2009 are taking jobs in other fields or giving up on their job searches," Day said.
The jobs data is not uniformly negative across all IT and engineering occupations. The numbers of employed computer scientist and systems analysts increased from 745,000 to 792,000, with unemployment falling from 7.3 percent to 5 percent.
Day said he hopes that the federal 2011 budget proposal, due Monday, "will call for continued growth in funding for technology, especially those investments authorized in the America Competes Act."
"Engineers and other applied technologists create jobs broadly, so it is very important to restore the health of the high-tech workforce," he said. The Competes Act, approved in 2007, includes a broad range of technology-funding and education initiatives.
President Obama is widely expected to give a lot of attention to jobs and unemployment in his State of the Union speech. Analysts and industry groups are predicting improved IT spending and hiring this year, but every report released discussing the economy in recent months underscore these outlooks with caveats and warnings, including the one released Tuesday by CompTIA, an IT industry group.