There are two axioms that are often cited regarding the engineering profession. One is that only about 20% of those who graduate with a B.S. in engineering in the U.S. go on to become licensed professional engineers. This one is true. The second, and a corollary to the first, is that 80% of engineering graduates work in industry. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In round numbers (all the numbers in this piece are very “round numbers”—don’t pick apart the numbers, think about the concepts), there are roughly 450,000 licensed professional engineers in the United States. The data aren’t precise, and the estimate varies a little from year to year, but this is in the ballpark. The American Society for Engineering Education indicates that about 74,000 baccalaureate degrees in engineering and computer science were issued in the United States in 2009. If one assumes a career length of 30 years and a constant number of graduates (neither of which are necessarily true, but these are round numbers), that would yield an estimated 2.2 million graduate engineers between licensure age and retirement in the U.S. Dividing the number of PEs by the estimated number of graduate engineers of working age in the U.S. yields a ratio of about 0.20, or 20%. Thus, the 20% axiom is approximately true.
Here’s the deal, though, with the other 80%. They don’t all work in industry; it isn’t even close. Of the 80%, consider the following:
1. Those who fail the FE exam: About 50,000 engineering students take the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam each year, and the pass rate is typically in the low 80s as a percentage. This means that 8,000-10,000 examinees per year fail the FE exam (about 12% of total engineering graduates). Some retake the FE exam; many don’t. Do you think that the engineers who fail the FE exam flock to industry? Some probably do wind up working in industry. But the percentage likely isn’t high.
2. Those who fail the PE exam: About 26,000 engineer interns take the PE exam every year, and the pass rate is typically in the low 60s as a percentage. Many who fail the PE exam retake it, but pass rates decline with each subsequent re-examination. This is another 8,000-9,000 examinees per year who fail the PE exam, some of whom subsequently pass upon re-examination. Do you think that engineers who fail the PE exam flock to industry? Probably not a high percentage. The vast majority of those who take the PE exam aren’t working in industry in the first place.
3. Engineers in government: The number of graduate engineers who work in federal, state, county, or local government and are not required to be licensed is significant.
4. Graduate engineers who go into other fields: The number of graduate engineers who go into management consulting, business, teaching, and any manner of other technical and nontechnical fields is very significant. The B.S. in engineering is a common starting point for many different careers other than engineering.
5. Graduate engineers who don’t work: Many graduate engineers take long mid-career or permanent breaks from work to raise families, and for other reasons. At an ABET meeting a few years ago, a professor rose to say the following: “We don’t talk about this often, but I’ve been wondering whether the engineering profession is sufficiently ‘user-friendly’ for female engineers. I have been teaching for a long time, and of all the female engineering students I’ve taught in the past, there are more not working at this moment than are working.” This is a topic for another day, but it is not an insignificant issue. The engineering profession is not user-friendly for women or men with young families. It takes dedication and a whole lot of flexibility by all involved to make it work well in this regard.
6. Graduate engineers who are underemployed or unemployed: This can be for a variety of job-skill-related reasons, or health or personal reasons. This category isn’t insignificant either.
I don’t have enough data to fill in the numbers above, but I would guesstimate that the combined total of the six categories above is greater than the number of graduate engineers working in industry under the industrial exemption. Without question, 80% of graduate engineers DO NOT work in industry.
Read Part II of this post
Published September 13, 2010 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.
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