The 80% Myth in the Engineering Profession

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

Filed under: Licensing, PE Exam, FE Exam,

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.

Comments are moderated and do not appear on the site until after they are reviewed.


Two comments:

1."Graduate engineers who are underemployed or unemployed: This can be for a variety of job-skill-related reasons, or health or personal reasons..."   Since the term "job-skill-related reasons" used by the author implies poor-job-skill, I find it to be rubbish and irresponsible. There are countless reasons  not 'poor-skill-related' that force an engi-neer to be without work for long time. Here is just one of them: "overqualified".  

2. The entire tone of the article extends undue importance of "licensing" of engineers as attestation of valid qualifications.

Having five decades of engineering practices on my back, I have seen no confirmation of such assumption.  

Friday, October 12, 2012 9:32 AM by Gerald Aksherian

This posting is very misleading. I've worked in non-license exempt areas of engineering for many years. The rank-and-file engineers don't need to be licensed as long as there is a senior engineer above them who is licensed.

Friday, October 12, 2012 11:54 AM by Edward Cankosyan

Almost all engineers I work with in industry (I'm in industry) I ask if they have taken the FE.  I would say about half of them have taken the FE and claim to have passed.  Almost no one claims to have taken the PE in industry.

Friday, December 21, 2012 12:02 PM by Jonn Nebbe, P.E.

I get my degree in my country ,I want to get a PE ,what I need to do and also I took some classes in a comunity college  may I tranfer.

thank you
Nelson A. Henriquez

Sunday, May 26, 2013 7:13 PM by nelson Henriquez

I'm a graduate BSEE and have worked in electrical design and power distribution equipment manufacturing industry for 25+ years without a PE license. I just recently passed my PE exam. Its never too late to get your license.

Thursday, May 30, 2013 1:02 PM by Bob Nimeth

How about all the non engineers working in the industry without certification. My degree is Applied Physics, I work in an engineering position, in which other people who share my same title are electrical engineers, Computer engineers, mechanical engineers, and computer scientists.

FE/PE is not required of me. We are all competent and do our jobs well. Why should people be required to spend more money to certify they know what their diploma says they already learned?

Ridiculous. Either require a certification or require a degree, don't waste peoples time with both.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 4:00 PM by Chris

The article doesn't appear to be written by an engineer - there are so many assumptions in the six (6) considerations presented as to be meaningless with regard to proving the "80% in industry myth" as proposed by the author. Surely an engineer wouldn't base an entire commentary on such incomplete and speculative information.

As an example, many in governmental engineering positions ARE required to be licensed (I happen to be one of them and am also in industry).

Another gross assumption is that those who DO pass the PE ARE in industry - I know many PE's who are teaching; and further, many of the PE's I know are in management and are far removed from actual engineering.

I was an engineer who didn't take the PE test until more than 16 years after graduation, and yet performed a significant amount of engineering work during that time. As stated by others, just because a graduate engineer didn't take the EIT/FE/PE, or pass the EIT/FE/PE, doesn't actually mean that they are not involved in engineering and industry.

And just because you passed the EIT/FE/PE doesn't mean that you can functionally practice engineering. A graduate electrical engineer with a PE asked me how a (desktop) radio worked because it only had one (1) wire - and how can there be a complete circuit? I went into antenna theory, ground-planes, etc. - but that wasn't the lack of understanding - the lack of understanding is that there was "only one wire going to the wall". A graduate electrical engineer with a PE (working for an electrical utility) didn't understand that there is more than one (1)conductor under a common jacket - and had never noticed that there were two (2) to three (3) electrical connections on a typical electrical plug/outlet.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013 4:52 PM by Philip Cox, PE

Wow, the electrical engineer with a PE example is startling.  I would have to assume there is a small percentage that fall in that category.  I want to confirm the poster's point that "most" state and federal government do require a PE license.  That's who leads the way in this requirement, not private practice.  This would include contractors of federal and state, which are the exemption here as private sector performing public sector work.  For me particularly I am an electrical engineer.  As many of the other engineering disciplines electrical engineering has a lot of sub-domains and probably the most considering power systems, controls, electronics, and even electrical material composites (just to name a few).  My job as a systems designer with emphasis on integrated circuit design does not require a P.E.  Do I need and electrical engineering degree to perform my job, you betcha.  I have been out of college over 10 years now have worked in industry since day 1 of graduation.  I never took the FE or the PE.  I did some homework early on to understand the industry demand and application of the licensure and it just didn't fit my engineering objective.  It's only now that I have interest in private practice and possibly having a federally recognized RE (Responsible Engineer) role on FAA DO-254 certified projects where RE's look good on paper that have a PE.  Other than that it just appears to be a money racquet at the state level to maintain corporate revenue streams (business taxations inherited by the licensees).

Tuesday, February 03, 2015 11:55 AM by Dwayne Jackson

I'm 59 years old, and finished my civil engineering degree five years ago.  I've worked for myself for four years and now I'm going to sit for my PE license.  Sure, you don't need a PE, if you have a job and aren't in any threat of losing it.  Is that you?  Please tell me the job in engineering where you work for someone else and have zero chance of losing your job.  The PE license gives you a stamp so you can stamp drawings and certify them.  You can't do that with just a BS in engineering.  If you are an employer, are you going to hire the guy with a BS or the guy with a BS and a PE?  If you are going to have your own business (as I do), the PE moves you to a much higher level, both in practicing engineering and in the money I'll be making.  You are right, just because you have a PE doesn't mean you can functionally practice engineering.  The same can be said of an engineer with 20 years experience with a BS degree.  I think those who don't think a PE is worth much, are the engineers who don't have it.  A PE shows a level of achievement that you don't have with a BS.  

Saturday, October 05, 2013 6:29 PM by Woody Wickliffe

I never took the FE or PE exam and have worked my whole life as a mechanical engineer.  It has never been an issue for me.  I really doubt that those who don't pass are not able to get a job.  The few classmates of mine who never worked in engineering after obtaining their degree ended up doing much better than those who did.  They typically worked in finance, law or medicine and are all making over 250k/yr now without paying $400/yr in licensing fee to an entity that is basically acts as political lobbyists. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014 4:31 PM by Dr Jack

When I got my BSEE in 1981 I took a research job in an electronics company, one of several who courted me because I was a woman.  I soon heard an anecdote about the PE exam in my state.  A man in a powerful position didn't want to see a particular (or any) woman to get licensed so he got the rules changed to require a BSEE to take the test so that her combination of other BS and MSEE would not qualify her.  Add to this a description of the test as heavily covering topics that hadn't been in my undergraduate program and not covering electronics at all and I concluded the test was passé, out of the touch with modern times and run by a bunch of old bastards who wanted me to fail so there was no point in spending my time on it.  I did, however, get an MSEE which was much more valuable to my company.  I was the first woman there to be granted a patent at that company which grew to 150,000 employees and was very much a household name.  I have no idea if it is still legal to sabotage women who want to be PEs.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 1:10 AM by S Phiilips

I know this article is old, but yeah, thought I'd throw my two cents in since people are still commenting in 2014.
I have my engineering degree from a top U.S. private school and had pretty good grades.  I passed the FE right out of college, then never was able to find a job in the field.  Of course, that meant I couldn't sit for the PE.
I see what the poster two above me (Woody Wickliffe) is saying and maybe I'm just feeding the stereotype, but people who hold the PE don't impress me at all.  Mainly because it's something any competent person should be able to do after their B.S. + passing fundamentals + working for a few years in the field.
I went to a good school, passed the FE with no problem (because I had a good education) and would have easily passed the PE had I found a job and eventually been able to sit for the exam.  So in my opinion, the PE is more of a testament to luck finding a job after college and simply not screwing it up than proficiency in an engineering dicipline.
I ended up working a bunch of dead-end minimum wage jobs for a few years after college while looking for any engineering job I could find since it was my dream since early high school to become an engineer.
Eventually, I gave up on that dream since I wasn't able to even get interviews.  I mean, why hire a guy who's been out of school for 4+ years and hasn't worked in industry when I could hire a fresh grad who has also passed their FE and had a recent internship.
Anyway, I started taking actuarial and CFA exams after I gave up on engineering.  I figured it was a way to not let my quantitative skills go to waste since the only time I used math was to calculate that I couldn't even pay the interest on my student loans with how much I was earning as a grocery stock person.
I have loads of friends who are in similar situations as me.  They all went to good schools (MIT, Cornell, Northwestern, U Miami, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, U Texas), all did well in school, and all weren't able to find jobs in engineering.  Granted, I have a few aquaintances who did find engineering gigs, but if I had to put a number on it, that 80% sounds about right, even though some of the authors assumptions are either flawed or falling in the "correlation is not necessarily causation" spectrum.
If I had to do it over again, instead of pursuing one of the more difficult majors and studying all the time to get good grades, I probably would have gone to a cheaper state school school, majored in business, and joined a frat to party + build a solid business network.

Thursday, July 10, 2014 7:59 AM by Brian

I am in a similar situation as you. Had good grades at university and when I graduated I couldn't find any job in the engineering field. After years of trying, I gave up altogether. I haven't worked in this field for a little more than 3 years, I never have worked period, and I can't work on my own either since I don't have that famous PE stamp. I mean as you said it, why hire a guy who hasn't found a job in the field when I can hire a fresh graduate. My first job interview was 1 year after I graduated. You can imagine this whole thing has led me to think that I will never be an engineer even though I have a BS. I am currently working in dead end jobs over the last three years but I have been working in similar jobs since I was a teenager. So, I haven't made much progress. In the end, looking back at the whole thing, I feel I was lied to by universities, teachers and colleagues. I just wished I can go back in time and start all over again and study something with more opportunities. Like you said, I would just get a business major and grow my network. I guess I am that 1% of people with a engineering degree who missed the boat. As for now, my skills are going wasted and returning back to school is a good idea. However I don't have the funds for it. I am still thinking what other field to study in and the only viable one I see is business.

Sunday, September 07, 2014 12:50 PM by Anonymous

I have worked in the electronics industry for roughly 30 years.  In all of that time I have never seen any position in any company I worked in or would likely work in, require a professional License.  All of the Hardware, FPGA, ASIC, Analog, Software, Firmware, Mechanical, Optical, Manufacturing Engineers working in our 'industry' do not need a license in order to have or keep a job, and it is irrellevant to our career potential.  I have a brother who is a Civil Engineer and I can understand the value of a professional license in his 'industry'.
Declaring 'Engineers' as though they are all the same type and 'industry' as though there is only one, seems to me is a narrow perspective.  When I was a Senior in Electrical Engineering, way back when, nobody mentioned the FE or even proposed the idea of becoming a Professional Engineer, with a license.  I did not even hear about it until many years later.  What we learned in school embraced a broad range of issues that only briefly touched on things that would directly relate to work that would require a PE License.
Additional fields of engineering I do not work with, that would normally not need a license to work:  Chemical Engineers, Mechanical engineers of the types that deal with complex moving parts.  Seems to me it is a narrow slice that would need a license.
Would be nice if there were better statistics on all this, broken down by discipline.

Monday, September 01, 2014 2:51 AM by Doug Gilligan

I am in a great dilemma right now... I was a student of civil engineering and passed my FE exam during my studies and could'nt graduate with that school but instead graduated in BS in Physics... I haven't received the FE certificate but the results in NCEES web site show that I passed FE... Is there anyway I can validate my EIT certification...or do i have to do masters in civil...

Sunday, October 26, 2014 1:55 PM by Mohammed Choudary

The NCEES website should have a link that tells you what you should do next to get certified. In my case (California) I just need to submit an application and pay $50 fee to get my certification. Good luck!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 12:56 PM by Brian


Wednesday, December 10, 2014 9:11 AM by EL SALEM

As for the article, one comment in particular reached out and struck me as being out of touch, and just plain incorrect. That is "The vast majority of those who take the PE exam aren’t working in industry in the first place."
I've met countless engineers who don't need to become licensed because it isn't required in their particular industry. This is fine and good. Licensure doesn't make a person any more competent than a non-licensed person, nor does lack of a license make a person incompetent. 
My particular industry requires a PE license. The company I work for assumes all incoming engineers will become licensed, and the company pays for preperation for the exam. An engineer can't get promoted very far without a license in this company, and that is typical in the power industry (serving utilities, industrial customers, etc).
A PE license is much more of an industry specific kind of thing. If it is a legal requirement in your industry, get it. If not, don't worry about it. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014 9:59 AM by Joel M.

Since a lot of women engineers leave the field within 10 years, I wonder what percentage of them obtain PE registration.

Saturday, January 31, 2015 10:13 PM by Nicole

I am 78 years old, and spent my entire career in one form of engineering or another.  I, however, have no degree.  I did study a great deal on my own, and passed the EIT in California in 1964.  I was working for the DOT as an Engineering Technician.  From the time I began working it was my goal to become a licensed engineer.  In 1973 I passed the PE exam in Washington State, concentrating in structural design and hydraulics.  I was licensed as  a civil Engineer.  In that field, which is very broad, I designed freeway interchanges, bridges, reinforced concrete buildings, retaining walls, river relocations, small dams, and many, many other kinds of engineering projects.  I later became Chief Engineer for a West Coast consulting firm and owner of my own consulting firm.  There is a lot more to successful engineering than a BS Degree or a PE license!  

Tuesday, February 03, 2015 2:38 AM by David H. Boyle, PE

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