Gloomy Unemployment Numbers for U.S. IEEE Members

By Helen Horwitz

The daily newspapers and television’s talking heads may be trumpeting a recovering U.S. economy, but don’t try to tell that to an unemployed electrical engineer in this country.

According to the 2013 IEEE-USA Employment Survey, almost two-thirds (63.2%) of the respondents who lost their jobs at some point during 2012, had not found new employment, when the survey was conducted in early 2013.

Almost one third (30.1%) had been re-employed–nearly one-fourth (22.3%) as a full-time technical professional. But considering total compensation and benefits, most participants indicated their current positions are worse (30.6%), or much worse (28.8%), than the positions they held immediately prior to their periods of unemployment.

The IEEE-USA Employment & Career Services Committee began conducting the survey in 1995, and has repeated it frequently since then, in an ongoing effort to understand different aspects of unemployment among IEEE’s U.S. members. This year, surveys were sent to 6,619 who reported being unemployed during the 2012 membership year. Slightly more than one thousand (1,017) surveys were returned–a 15.4 response rate. Data collection of the online survey began on 23 January and ended on 27 February.

About one-third (32.5%) of respondents were from the Western United States, with somewhat fewer from the Northeast (22.4%) and Southeast (13.6). About 10 percent were from the remaining parts of the country. An almost equal percentage of respondents’ highest degrees was a BS/BSEE, or other Baccalaureate (40.6%), or a MS/MSEE, or other Master’s (44.1%). Some 15.3% had a Ph.D.

Almost three-quarters (74.7%) of those participating in the 2013 survey were between the ages of 50 and 69; members less than 40 years of age comprised only 9.5% of the participants, while those 70 and over, just 2.2%.


Either at the time of the survey, or before they became unemployed, respondents were most frequently employed in computers (17.8%), followed by electrical/electronics manufacturing (13.2) and communications (11.5%). Over two-thirds (67.2) reported being laid off from their last position, with more than half (55.7%) reporting the reason was a business downturn. The second most frequently selected answer (21.8%) was “other.” Respondents who selected this response noted that a project or contract had ended, there was a lack of funding or grants, the business had closed down, or reorganization had taken place.

Members who said they had been re-employed as full-time technical professionals were distinct from the unemployed–both in their age and length of unemployment. The mean age of re-employed fulltime professionals was 49.2 years. The median duration of unemployment for all respondents was 52 weeks; however, those who were re-employed fulltime were jobless for a shorter period.

Following the same pattern as in previous surveys, the connection between age and employment opportunities remains a key concern among jobless engineers. In this year’s survey, respondents who had been re-employed fulltime as technical professionals, were among the youngest of respondents (mean age = 50.5); significantly lower than those who were self-employed (55.9), involuntarily unemployed (54.3), or retired (61.8). In addition, older respondents were more likely than younger ones to have been laid off. The mean age of those laid off was 55.1 years, contrasted with 52.2 for those who were not laid off.

Younger respondents were more likely to report that finding a new job was fairly easy (mean age = 47.8); that they had found a great job (mean age = 48.5); or that they were likely to get a raise (mean age = 46.0). The mean age of those who indicated that age is a barrier to finding employment was more than a decade higher than those who did not-the mean age there was 56.6, versus 46.2.

What’s the typical compensation for those members with new jobs? Immediately prior to becoming unemployed, respondents’ average salary was $116,000, and the median–a better representation of the data–was $110,000. The average salary of the new job fell to $88,000–a 24.1% drop.  When employed, 59.9% of respondents were receiving at least four of the major benefits paid fully or partly by their employers: healthcare, dental, a 401K plan, life, vision care and a pension plan. However, once reemployed, just 18.7% were receiving at least four benefits.

Healthcare insurance, which 78.4% of the respondents received when employed, was the least likely to have been regained in a new job. Almost one quarter (23.6%) of those members who have been reemployed reported they have no healthcare coverage with their new employers. If there’s a bright side in this area of the survey, it is this: the percentage of respondents who did not receive any benefits once reemployed has plunged–from 69.6% in 2010, to 36% in 2011, to only 9.9% in 2013.


Job search techniques and their effectiveness is one of the more interesting aspects of the 2013 IEEE-USA Employment Survey. Respondents were asked which of seven customary job search techniques they had used, and how well each worked for them. They used a nine-point scale in which 1 was “very ineffective” and 9 was “very effective.”  The majority had used most of the seven techniques, with networking rating highest at 89.9; and responding to Internet or print job postings following closely at 88.6%. However, when it came to effectiveness, only networking received a mean score above 5.0 (5.8%) on the 9-point scale. Using a recruiter was rated second most effective, with a mean of just 4.1%.

Surprisingly, more than half (52.7%) of the participants were not aware that IEEE-USA offers employment assistance services.

Despite their employment difficulties, most respondents (81.3%) wanted to stay in their primary technical area, and 72% did not contemplate leaving the engineering profession entirely. Even the 64% contemplating leaving engineering would like to remain in their current technical area.

Would they recommend their profession to their children? Almost half (45.9%) said they would, but 25.4% indicated they would not. Another 28.7% were unsure. A greater proportion of this year’s respondents assessed the long-term demand for engineers as excellent or good (63.1% in 2013, versus 50.7% in 2011).

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

Helen Horwitz

Helen Horwitz was an award-winning freelance writer 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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