Behind 'Shortage' of Engineers: Employers Grow More Choosy
Job Hunters Face Long Lists Of Requirements as Web Brings Flood of Résumés
Two Hires From 158 Applicants
By SHARON BEGLEY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 16, 2005
Many companies say they're facing an increasingly severe shortage of engineers. It's so bad, some executives say, that Congress must act to boost funding for engineering education.
Yet unemployed engineers say there's actually a big surplus. "No one I know who has looked at the data with an open mind has been able to find any sign of a current shortage," says demographer Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
What's really going on? Consider the case of recruiter Rich Carver. In February, he got a call from the U.S. unit of JSP Corp., a Tokyo plastic-foam maker. The company was looking for an engineer with manufacturing experience to serve as a shift supervisor at its Butler, Pa., plant, which makes automobile-bumper parts.
Within two weeks, Mr. Carver and a colleague at the Hudson Highland Group had collected more than 200 résumés. They immediately eliminated just over 100 people who didn't have the required bachelor of science degree, even though many had the kind of job experience the company wanted. A further 65 or so then fell out of the running. Some were deemed overqualified. Others lacked experience with the proper manufacturing software. JSP brought in a half-dozen candidates for an interview, and by August the company had its woman.
To JSP, taking six months to fill the position confirmed its sense that competition for top engineers is intense. Company officials "struggle to fill" openings, says human-resources manager Vicki Senko.
But for candidates facing 200-to-1 odds of getting the job, the struggle seems all on their side. "Companies are looking for a five-pound butterfly. Not finding them doesn't mean there's a shortage of butterflies," says Richard Tax, president of the American Engineering Association, which campaigns to prevent losses of engineering jobs.
Amid rapidly changing technology, the engineers employers want aren't necessarily the engineers who are available. And companies often create the very shortages they decry by insisting on applicants who meet every item on a detailed list of qualifications. With the Internet adding to the pile of résumés, company officials say a certain degree of mechanical weeding-out is unavoidable.
The dueling perceptions of engineer shortages lie behind some big policy debates in Washington, fueling emotional clashes over immigration policy and the future of well-paying jobs in America.
Under the H-1B temporary work visa program, U.S. employers are permitted to hire foreign nationals with knowledge and skills deemed to be in short supply. The visas are valid for up to six years and are currently capped at 65,000 per year. Business groups, led by the Electronic Industries Alliance, argue that they need the foreigners because they can't find enough skilled U.S. engineers and technical workers. American engineers, particularly those who are unemployed, complain that the H-1Bs take away their jobs.
At a forum on innovation and education held at the Library of Congress last April, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said, "There just aren't as many graduates with a computer-science background. [That] creates a dilemma for us, in terms of how we get our work done." Last year the National Science Board, part of the National Science Foundation, warned that the U.S. faces "an emerging and critical problem of the science and engineering labor force."
In fact, the number of students graduating with a bachelor of science degree in computer science rose 85% from 1998 to 2004, according to figures compiled from universities by the Computing Research Association. The number of bachelor degrees in engineering rose to 72,893 in 2004 from 61,553 in 1999, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
Unemployment among engineers was 2.5% in 2004, in line with the 2.8% rate for all professional occupations. In 2003, 4.3% of engineers were unemployed compared with 3.2% for all professionals. The figures don't include people who gave up looking for work in their profession. From 2000 to 2003 engineering employment fell 8.7%, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.
Despite the numbers, employers say they struggle to find the right person for openings. Earlier this year, Raytheon Co., Waltham, Mass., needed to find some systems engineers. Raytheon received 158 résumés. It eliminated 40 in the first pass because the applicants would not be able to get a security clearance, says senior vice president Keith Peden. Raytheon ruled out 90 more because the applicants lacked experience in the specific kinds of technology or markets the job required. That left 28. Ten dropped out because they would not relocate or had insufficient technical experience. Raytheon interviewed the remaining 18 in person, made three offers and hired two.
"What used to take two and a half to three months now takes five," says Mr. Peden. Raytheon's chief executive, William Swanson, says: "As a company, we are meeting our hiring needs. My concern is that the degree of difficulty in meeting those needs has gone up exponentially."
Some elite companies have an even higher applicants-to-jobs ratio. Microsoft received résumés from about 100,000 graduating students last year, screened 15,000 of them, interviewed 3,500 and hired 1,000, says a spokesman. The software maker receives about 60,000 résumés of every kind monthly, and currently has 2,000 openings for software-development jobs.
Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, N.M., hires only people with a master's degree or doctorate for positions in electrical, mechanical and computer engineering. They all need security clearances, says Kate Rivera, manager of staffing, recruiting and relocation. "We are seeing a good supply of engineers and are able to fill our positions," she says, "though filling niche positions can be harder."
Microsoft, too, hires almost exclusively Ph.D.s for its top research positions, says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research. "We struggle to fill positions for our most technical jobs, though last year and this the supply of Ph.D.s has been fantastic" because of the hangover from the dot-com and telecom busts, he says.
Linda Olin-Weiss, director of staffing services at Lockheed Martin Corp., says there are "pockets of niche skills where it takes longer to get that talent." Lockheed competes with Boeing Co. and other aerospace firms for the best load engineers and optical engineers, she says, "but our programs are fully staffed today and we're able to fill our engineering positions."
Companies often draw up extremely narrow job descriptions, recruiters and staffing managers say, causing searches to get drawn out. One cause: the rise of online job sites, which makes it hard for company executives to personally review every candidate. To screen out the hundreds or thousands of résumés that pour in to a posting on Monster.com or Yahoo HotJobs, companies use software filters to look for keywords. In engineering, those keywords typically describe machinery or computer fields in which expertise is sought, such as C+++, server/stepper and CAE schematic.
Hiring managers often prefer to wait for the candidate who has the exact combination of attributes they seek, rather than immediately hiring someone who comes close and then giving that person time to get familiar with a new machine or software program.
Last April, Mike Sylvester got a call from Wabtec Corp., Wilmerding, Pa., which builds components for locomotives, freight cars, subway cars and buses. Wabtec needed a mechanical engineer to work on locomotive design. Mr. Sylvester, vice president of operations at AllTek Staffing & Resource Group in Pittsburgh, used his internal database as well as Monster.com to find candidates, and in two days had more than 40 résumés.
He eliminated most of them quickly because they lacked a bachelor of science degree or work experience in the right field. He called five, asking them for references, and passed three on to Wabtec. Then came the deal-breaker. Wabtec would only consider candidates who had experience with Pro/Engineer Wildfire, a new 3-D computer-aided design software package, not an earlier package called 2000i.
"The basic difference between Wildfire and 2000i is not that significant," says Mr. Sylvester. "I say smart people can learn sister applications, but there is reluctance among hiring managers to see that. If they use a SAP database system, they won't even look at someone with experience with a PeopleSoft system. There is a major fear of having to bring someone up a learning curve. They want them to hit the ground running."
Wabtec's vice president for human resources, Scott Wahlstrom, says the company's demands are usually less specific and it is willing to train new hires. But he says "it happens sometimes that you get in a jam, where someone left and we have a very specific search. Those are costly and time-consuming."
The detailed demands aren't confined to software jobs. Mr. Sylvester was asked to find a mechanical engineer to oversee a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system at a hospital. "A pump is a pump and a duct is a duct, but they wouldn't even look at candidates who had HVAC experience in a mill instead of a hospital," he says.
At JSP, the plastic-foam company, Ms. Senko in human resources says it took six months to fill a process-engineer opening last year. "The hiring manager was looking for very specific technical skills and experience in plastics and injection molding," she says. "We finally persuaded him to expand the scope of the required experience."
James Murphy, 60 years old, of North Hills, Calif., sees the phenomenon from the other side. He holds a master's degree in mechanical engineering and worked for major aerospace companies doing dynamic load analysis -- figuring out what forces would cause an aircraft to break. Later he worked at Continental Airlines using computer algorithms to optimize flight scheduling. Laid off in 2001 from his position doing computerized inventory for a music wholesaler, he estimates he has sent out 10 résumés a week. He has had two job interviews in the past year, both with aircraft manufacturers. Neither led to an offer.
"There is now a string of requirements for an engineering job," says Mr. Murphy. "Years ago there would be one major requirement, with x, y and z nice to have. The worst thing about this emotionally is reading about the 'shortage' of engineers."
Pradeep Khosla, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says that for older engineers, "there is a problem of technology moving at a very fast rate. When engineers are without jobs, it is usually because they have not kept up." Mr. Sylvester, the recruiter, puts it more bluntly: "A guy who's been working on a 15-year-old application is a dinosaur."
"Getting engineers who have the type of talent you need, quickly -- a great background, very well-educated, mobile -- has become more important over the last few years," says Jane Leipold, vice president for human resources at Tyco Electronics, Harrisburg, Pa., a unit of Tyco International Ltd. "The demands are different. The advances in technology mean you need very specific talents."
One employer demand that flummoxes many engineers is the need for "soft" skills -- working in groups, communicating and writing. In August, Cornell University hired a speaker to instruct its engineering students in "etiquette and interpersonal skills." (Hints: Don't crumble crackers into your soup or blot your underarms with the dinner napkin.)
"During the dot-com boom demand for electrical and computer engineers was so great it was enough if you could just write code," says Prof. Khosla. "Things have changed a lot."
The dot-com era is only one of many cases over the years when demand for engineers rode a roller coaster. During the Reagan military buildup in the 1980s, aerospace and the defense industry were hot. Then the Cold War ended.
Many executives who contend there's an engineer shortage today predict it will get worse over the next decade as baby boomers begin to retire. This summer a report from a business consortium called for doubling the number of science and engineering graduates by 2015 to fill a projected gap. But crystal balls about labor markets tend to be cloudy. In the mid-1980s, the National Science Foundation predicted "looming shortfalls" of some 675,000 scientists and engineers in the following two decades. They never materialized.
"Every few years there is a spurt of panic that we won't have enough engineers in five years," says Paul Kostek, a systems engineer in Seattle who recently got a job at Boeing after working as a consultant for a decade. "And I say to myself, gee, I'll still be here."
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