Despite a shaky technology job market, the outlook is surprisingly good for most engineering disciplines.

The spring salary survey of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported that starting salaries offered to engineering majors are averaging $40,377 for civil engineers and $53,477 for petroleum engineers. Even though survey numbers are only based on responses from 180-200 colleges from NACE’s database of 340 schools across the United States, the numbers are pretty accurate, considering the sample’s size.

A sagging economy hasn’t had any effect on the number of job offers for graduates from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, CA, according to career counselor Jo-Ann Fantino Ruffolo. “All our engineering grads (structural, software, mechanical, optical, aerospace, chemical, systems, environmental, biomedical) are getting multiple job offers,” she says. “That includes all degree levels—bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate.” Salary offers range from a low of $50,000 to a high of $100,000. Signing bonuses are also being awarded to top-of-the-class students. Based upon approximate numbers, Ruffolo says the grads most aggressively recruited are hardware and software engineers and optical and aeronautic engineers.

But although the outlook is rosy at Caltech, that’s not true of all areas of the country. If you are planning to hire any engineering graduates, you’ll want to read on. I’ll give you an overview of what’s happening in this market regionally so that you can seek out the most employable talent.

Fewer offers, smaller companies, more consulting
Despite the heartening numbers seen at Caltech, Matt Tirrell, dean of engineering at University of California at Santa Barbara, says many of his engineering grads are only getting two to three job offers, contrasted with last year, when they got six or seven. “This year, companies are a lot more conservative and careful about hiring,” he observes. Computer, electrical, and mechanical engineers are getting the most offers. Chemical engineers, although small in number, are capturing the highest salaries.

Rather than taking jobs at big companies, Tirrell says UC Santa Barbara grads are leaning toward smaller companies. “They see better and faster long-term career opportunities,” he says. Much more so than in prior years, more grads are taking jobs with financial services and consulting companies. McKinsey & Company is just one example of the blue-chip consulting companies that have been hiring advanced-degree engineering graduates for a number of years.

Regional outlooks vary
At the University of North Texas’ engineering school in Denton, approximately 60-70 percent of grads are walking away with jobs, compared to 85-90 percent last year. “Grads with work experience (typically, technician jobs) are grabbed quickly,” says Associate Professor Mitty Plummer. “Overall, the job market for engineers is much softer than it was last year.” One factor in that downturn is that Lockheed Martin and other major defense contractors are not hiring as aggressively as they did in 2000. Mechanical and electronics engineers are getting most of the job offers, and surprisingly, many are at telecommunications companies, according to Plummer. Unlike the substantial offers for Caltech grads, the salary outlook is less attractive in Texas. “Most engineers are working pretty cheap,” adds Plummer. “Last year, the average starting salary was around $65,000. This year it dropped to $55,000. Very few grads are getting signing bonuses.” But, engineers with the three to five years of experience have no trouble getting substantial salaries.

At Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, the biggest demand is for civil engineers, although they account for only 10 percent of engineering grads. “The demand for civil engineers has always been cyclical,” explains Joe Stahley, executive director of career development. Interestingly, a sluggish economy hasn’t dampened the demand for civil engineers. “The reason is large infrastructure projects (bridges, roads) contracted and budgeted by the government 12-18 months ago are still going forward, which explains the demand,” says Stahley.

While defense contractors are barely hiring in Texas, it’s just the opposite in New Jersey. After a couple of years of downsizing and consolidation, companies like Lockheed, the Mitre Corporation, and Hamilton Sundstrand, as well as the U.S. Army, are hiring engineers.

Similarly, the hiring of chemical engineers “has held firm,” says Stahley. “Pharmaceutical companies (Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal), which are abundant in Jersey, are doing most of this hiring. And, most companies are still hiring computer engineers.”

Despite a steady demand for engineers, Garden State grads have still seen a slowdown. “Last year, 90 percent of the students had jobs before they graduated; this year, it has dropped to 75 percent,” Stahley adds.

Engineers aren’t complaining, however. They’re faring better than other techies. If the economy turns around over the next 6-12 months, the job outlook for engineers will only get better. But, count on more conservative job offers sans the sexy perks of prior years. Many employers paid a hefty price for compensation excess.


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