2017 Employment Survey Shows Optimism, Despite Continuing Unemployment

2017 Employment Survey Shows Optimism, Despite Continuing Unemployment

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First, the bad news: The nearly two-thirds of U.S. IEEE members who reported being unemployed at some point during 2016, had not been re-employed by mid-April of 2017.

Now, the better news: For members who have been re-employed, the median length of time they needed to find new jobs declined dramatically—from 92 weeks in last year’s report—to 52 weeks.

IEEE conducted the 2017 IEEE-USA Employment Survey, the 14th since the study began in 1995, from 28 March through 18 April 2017. The online questionnaire was sent electronically to the 2,404 U.S. IEEE members who reported becoming unemployed during the 2016 membership year. Exactly 605 surveys were returned, representing a solid 25.2% response rate.

Consistent with recent years, the 64% of the respondents who were laid off from their last positions had not secured new employment when the survey was conducted. The most-cited reasons for the layoffs: business downturn, either actual or anticipated (41%); change in the business model (16%); and mergers/acquisitions, or transfer of work, to an offshore location (15%). Also consistent with the last two years: layoffs targeted at specific functions, or units, more often than they were across the board (64% and 36%, respectively.)

At the same time, the Survey responses revealed these interesting new findings:

  • The unemployed in 2017 represent a broader range of ages, education levels and career experience than in previous years—thus altering the usual belief that primarily older, more experienced engineering professionals are laid off.
  • In 2017, those participating in the survey don’t consider national economic conditions as a significant obstacle to re-employment. This year, it sank to 19%, compared with 44% in 2010.
  • Among those who were unemployed at the time of the survey, participants were optimistic about the future; 22% rated the long-range outlook for engineers as “excellent”—the highest mark in 11 years.

Respondents to the 2017 survey were predominantly male (82.2%, compared with last year’s 89.3%), with a mean age of 55 and a median of 57. Participants have a mean average of about 26 years of professional service. The median, which tends to rule out unusually low or “outlier” values, is somewhat higher, at 30 years.

Regionally, 34.7% are from the West; 18.1% are from the Northeast; and 15.3% are from the Southwest. Exactly 44% have a B.S.E.E. degree, while 30% have a B.S. Nearly a quarter (23%) have an M.S.E.E.; 14% have a Ph.D.

According to the report, the overall population of unemployed members has shrunk in recent years. “Last year’s report highlighted that those unemployed were older, more experienced, and had more difficulty finding re-employment,” it states. “This year’s data come closer to the results from two years ago, while still being higher than expected.”

Of the 20% who have been re-employed, 11% are working full time as technical professionals; this percentage is down from 17.1% in 2016. Some 3% are working part-time as technical professionals; and 5% are self-employed.

Before they became unemployed, respondents most frequently worked in Computers (17%), Semiconductors (11%), and Electrical/Electronics Manufacturing (10%). This survey marks the second consecutive year that only 4% selected the Communications industry—a steep decline from the 2015 report, when 13.6% of respondents were employed in this area.

The mean number of engineers at respondents’ most recent places of employment was 1,450—up just slightly from 1,412 in last year’s report. A few, very large employers heavily skew this number; and the median of 50 engineers might more closely represent the average respondent. The median is down 17% (from 60 engineers) compared to last year, thus returning to the median from the 2015 report.

Some 52% of respondents’ most recent positions were at least somewhat dependent on government contracts or funds. This percentage is in keeping with reports from the last two years.

How satisfied with their compensation and benefits are those members who have since been re-employed? When taking into account their total compensation, benefits, quality-of-life issues, and related aspects: 62% (up from 54.5%) from last year indicate their current positions are worse (30%), or much worse (31%), than the jobs they held immediately prior to their period of unemployment. Some 21% say their current position is either better (13%), or much better (8%).

Immediately prior to their unemployment, respondents’ mean salary was $128,158; the median (a better representation of the data, according to the report) was $120,000. The median is down nearly $10,000 compared to 2016, but is still higher than reported in 2015. Those still unemployed indicated they would accept a minimum actual mean salary of $106,011. Some think this trend shows potential optimism among unemployed engineers, since it is up nearly $20,000 from 2016. The median, $95,000, is more in line with the actual figures those members who were re-employed, reported.

At their last jobs, 61% of respondents received at least five of the benefits measured in the survey. Once re-employed, the same percentage is receiving at least the same benefits: healthcare insurance, dental insurance, a 401K plan, life insurance and vision-care insurance. Some 14% report they are receiving no benefits; this percentage is a slight improvement from 2016, when 17.6% said they received no benefits upon being re-employed.

What kind of job search techniques are the respondents using? The majority most frequently network and respond to internet or print job postings (74.8% and 73.5%, respectively). When asked to rate them on a nine-point scale, with nine as “very effective,” networking receives a 6.3 for mean effectiveness; responding to internet or print job postings, 4.6. Interestingly, the two least-used techniques—utilizing outplacement services and hiring a private consultant—had the two highest satisfaction levels, with scores of 7.0 and 8.8, respectively.

Regarding their perception of the engineering profession, most participants (83%) want to stay in their primary technical area; and 72% are not considering moving out of the profession entirely. Most (71%) are not considering returning to school; while 8% plan to return fulltime, and 21% plan to return part-time. Despite their unemployment, respondents are positive about how they assess the long-term demand for engineers:  45% indicated it is good; 22% believe it is excellent.

IEEE Strategic Research conducted the survey for IEEE-USA.


Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.

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