2016 IEEE-USA Employment Survey: Unemployment Declines, but a Worrisome Sign for Older Engineers

2016 IEEE-USA Employment Survey: Unemployment Declines, but a Worrisome Sign for Older Engineers

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The results of the 2016 IEEE-USA Employment Survey are in, and once again, the results are a mixture of good and bad news. There’s also an emerging, and potentially worrisome, new trend.

While nearly half (49.6%) of the survey respondents reported that they were not employed when the survey was conducted, the overall population of unemployed U.S. IEEE members has declined in recent years.

But at the same time, the data point to a disturbing new development: unemployed engineers who are older and have been unemployed much longer than in previous reports. Not surprising, this group has more experience–and last earned higher salaries than their younger, unemployed counterparts.

The IEEE-USA Employment & Career Services Committee has conducted the survey since 1995, repeating it most years in an ongoing effort to understand the issues of unemployment among IEEE’s U.S. members. This year, online surveys were sent to 2,077 U.S. members who reported being unemployed during the 2015 membership year. Exactly 364 were returned, for a 17.6% response rate. Data collection began on 1 February and ended on 22 February. The margin of error is ± 4.7, meaning 95% confidence that the true answer is within ± 4.7 percentage points of the finding.

A key discovery this year is the significant decline in the number of U.S. members who reported being unemployed during 2015. This finding is based on how many either renewed or joined using the IEEE discount for unemployed members. Since 2013, when 6,619 reported being out of work the previous year, the number has steadily fallen by more than 65% to 2,077 in the latest report.

While this drop in overall unemployment is good news for engineers who currently have a job, the survey points out that those who are unemployed are a distinct group among engineering professionals. At the time of the survey, more than two-thirds had not been reemployed. The majority (89.3%) is male, the median age is 57, and they have 30 years of professional experience–with 48.5% reporting 30-39 years of experience–higher compared to previous surveys. Moreover, the duration of this group’s unemployment has jumped significantly; it is 92 weeks, up 50% from the 60 weeks reported last year.

Some 56% of those participating in the survey indicated it was difficult to find a new job, with 80.7% citing age as the greatest barrier to their employment or re-employment. About 40% (40.9%) felt that the length of their unemployment was a barrier. However, perceptions of national economic conditions have improved significantly; 30.1% see it as a barrier to re-employment, compared with 34.1% in the 2015 report, and 44% in 2014.

Immediately prior to becoming unemployed, respondents’ median salaries were $129,820. This represents an increase of almost $15,000 compared to last year’s report, supporting the finding that today’s unemployed engineer is more likely to be older, more experienced and more highly compensated than younger colleagues.

Among respondents reporting they had been reemployed, the mean salary dropped by 22.8% to $102,309. The median was slightly below, at $94,000. Among those who were still unemployed, they indicated they would accept a minimum mean salary of $84,000; this is down from $94,232 in 2015, although the median was higher than in 2015, at $85,000.

Regionally, this year’s participants represented proportionally identical sections of the United States: About one third (33.8%) were in the West, slightly more than one fifth (21.6%) were in the Northeast; 12.7% were from the Southwest; 10.7% were from the East; 11.7% were from the Southeast; and 8.4% were from the Central United States. There also were similarities in education; this year, 31.3% reported having BS/BSEE or other Baccalaureate degrees; 38.3% held an MS/MSEE or other Master’s; and 13.7% had a Ph.D.

Either at the time of the survey, or just before they became unemployed, the respondents were most frequently employed in Computers (17.8%), followed by Transportation (12.1%) and Aerospace (8.4%). In last year’s report, those in Communications and Electrical/Electronics Manufacturing were in the top three industries reported, at 13.6% and 11.8%, respectively. Those industries were far less represented among unemployed respondents this year.

About six in ten (60.9%) were laid off from their last positon, with an actual or anticipated business downturn the most frequently cited reason (58.3%). Consistent with last year, layoffs were targeted at specific functions or units somewhat more often than they were across the board (61.7% and 38.3%, respectively).

When considering their total compensation, benefits, quality of life, and related aspects–54.5% of participants who had been reemployed indicated that their current positions are worse, or much worse, than the positions they held immediately before becoming unemployed. Immediately before unemployment, the median respondent salary was $129,820. Once reemployed, the median salary dropped to $94,000. On the other hand, more than one fifth (22.8%) indicated their current position was either better, or much better.

When employed, some two-thirds (66.5%) of respondents were receiving at least four of the six benefits measured in the survey (healthcare insurance, dental insurance, 401K plan, life insurance, vision care insurance, and pension plan). Once reemployed, slightly more (68.2%) were receiving at least some benefits.

Regarding their job search, respondents said that both networking, and responding to internet or print job postings, is most effective (74.8% and 73.5%, respectively.) Using a headhunter/recruiter also rated highly, at 58%. Slightly less than half of all respondents (48.8%) were aware that IEEE-USA offers employment assistance services.

Despite being unemployed during some part of 2015, most respondents (80.1%) wanted to stay in their primary technical area, and 66.9% were not contemplating leaving the engineering profession entirely. Most participants (75.6%) also do not plan to return to school again, although 17.9% plan to return part time.

Respondents were split on how they assess the long-term demand for engineers; 41.7% indicated it is good, and 30.4%, fair. Although 9.9% indicated that long-term demand is poor, this percentage is still down considerably from 19.4% in 2013.

The IEEE-USA Employment Survey Report – 2016 Edition is available at shop.ieeeusa.org for $7.99 to members and $9.99 to non-members.


Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1981 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.

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