My first research project in academia, in 2005, was to research the graduation rates of engineers in the U.S. vs. India and China. My conclusion was that there was no shortage of engineers in the U.S., China had excess supply, and India was in serious trouble. My subsequent research contradicted these findings and I began to realize that the situation is far more nuanced. I have written several articles about these topics that you can find on this website  (I know that sections of this are hopelessly out of date–I just haven’t had time to update).

Today, almost every tech company and venture capitalist I meet says that it is very hard to find skilled tech talent. Yet, unemployment is at a record high and we read heart-wrenching stories of engineers who have decades of experience and who can’t find work. I have written about the age bias in Silicon Valley, but the problem is far bigger than this.

I am thinking of writing about this. But before I do, I want to get input from as many people as I can. I look forward to reading your comments.

  • http://imraan.in Imraan

    I have analysed the education system and conclude that, its the system which is responsible for low quality outputs.
    i.e, if a student goes for MCA (Masters of Computer Application) what is he specializing at ? He have to student java, vb.net, oracle, mysql as well as (it freaks me out) he have to study ledgers, balance sheets and all the accountancy. Now in limited time if he have to do all this what is he specializing at ?
    Is it not the system which is making us “Jack of all trades and master of none” ?
    My ideal way of education system is to divide this into segments. If anyone is interested to go for web development he should concentrate on subjects like javascript,php,mysql (or the alternatives). But why should he study accountancy or discrete mathematics ?

    Now who is responsible for this low quality output, the students or the system ?

  • John Peterson

    Vivek,

    I wish I had seen this website a week or so ago! I am about to talk to a bunch of 8th graders tomorrow as part of Career Day at a local middle school. I am a Chemical Engineer, near the end of his career, after 41 years working for a single company in the chemical manufacturing business.

    Actually, I am now a contractor, but working at the same Site, doing the same thing, so I think of it as 41 continuous years, although to be accurate, it was 37 years as a direct employee, and now 4 years as a contractor. I’m having more fun now, and doing better work, than at any time since graduation in 1970. I want to present a positive outlook for these youngsters, and encouage a few to consider engineering, but I don’t want to be misleading.

    I read many good comments in reply to your request, but I know I don’t have time to fully digest all of the information in time to deliver the substance tomorrow. Nevertheless, here is what I see from my perspective:

    Whether there is a shortage of engineers, I do not know, but I am convinced there is a shortage of engineers that want to do practical, day-to-day, process design, troubleshooting, and operations-type work, in a demanding environment where experience, in many cases, trumps theory. We need (I think) more young engineers willing to stick to an entry level job long enough to become proficient and productive, rather than transition at the first opportunity to the management ladder, and we need more older engineers willing to spend a little of their time mentoring the few who have a passion for the field.

    Perhaps before next year’s Career Day I can educate myself a little on theh true prospects for wanna-be engineers.

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  • Michael

    My input. nIn my class of the people i still have contact with 50% went to a nonscience job where they could enjoy a 40-50% income raise. 50% went abroad to pursue an engineering career elsewhere. People did this because of 1 thing mainly: Salary. I have read statistics that an engineer is active in his area of expertice for about 5-7 years then they wish to change career completly. So figures talk for them selves: there are alot of disapointed engineers out there and there have been so for the last 20 years this is probably the main cause for the so called “lack of engineer”. I would redirect the statement and say it too many engineers overall but a lack of inspiring and well paid engineering jobs. There are plenty of engineers but the problem is that they are pursueing a non-engineering career, which is more satisfying and better paid. nnI’m from Sweden currently working in Norway.

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  • Proemed

    One thing I noticed is that all the comments sound like engineers are nothing more than computer/software writers. Engineering was around long before computers. Its unfortunate that everyone thinks computers give us all our answers. This is a sign as to why we are no longer a technology leader. The applied sciences, R and D companies are leaving in droves. Engineers are considered a relatively worthless commodity to employers in the US today.nn We are becoming a service economy faster and faster everyday. The Caribbean is a perfect service economy. They sell beads and coconuts and vacations. I’m sure we will do it better but our living standard is falling like a rock! Engineers are of little use in the Caribbean. I can see that happening here now. How many so called engineers know how to design a circuit, or use Finite Element Analysis? The days of engineers make things in the USA is over. Service is king! Real technology will go to the next generation of world leaders. Maybe they will think about building engineering in their country.

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  • Keith

    Allow me to provide a perspective from a boot-strap startup in Silicon Valley. For a small company like ourselves with limited funds and name recognition, finding talent in Silicon Valley is extremely difficult. The marque tec companies (you know their names) are a powerful draw for the talent we are looking for. This has forced us to look elsewhere.nnWe have good contacts with excellent development resource in India and this has worked well as far as it goes however, now that our service is live and we are focussed on fine-tuning the UI/UX I find that it is critical that I be face-to-face with our engineers. Happily, we have been fortunate enough to have been selected for participation in Startup-Chile. As I know you will be in Santiago to meet with the participants on Monday, you are well-versed in the program. I regret that I will not be there to meet with you but I thought you might be interested to know that one of my primary reasons for applying was specifically to address our need for engineering talent.nnI understand that there is excellent talent available in Santiago and this combined with the friendly business climate and the awesome support provided by the people at Startup-Chile leads me to believe that great things will come from our experience in Chile.nnIf the talent is there and we achieve the objectives we have set for ourselves, this could very well lead to a long-term presence for us in Chile.

  • http://www.BrilliantLeap.com/blog Virginia Backaitis

    Would you include software developers and architects who work within the confines of Fortune 500 companies (whose products are not technology) supporting business applications in this argument?

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  • Alex Salkever

    Its a shortage. No doubt. All my friends who code Rails or Python are getting paid a ton of money after very short periods. Kids straight out of undergrad are getting $85k. Not sure if its totally localized but its definitely a shortage in Silicon Valley.

  • http://www.tamharbert.com Tam Harbert

    Hi, Vivek -nnI’ve been writing about tech for more than 20 years, and this has been a hot-button issue for at least that long. My personal opinion is that middle-aged and older engineers have a hard time keeping up with the latest skill sets. They also require higher salaries and may not be as versatile as they used to be. Corporations naturally want young, eager engineers who are up on the latest technology and are enthusiastic about learning anything and everything. I guess this amounts to age bias, although I don’t think companies are consciously discriminating. In my own profession – journalism – the same thing is happening. I’m middle aged, and I am hustling to learn new digital/multimedia reporting skills in hopes of retaining my earnings potential.

  • Charles

    Some good observations here, indicating it is not a simple issue. I would add that it depends very much on the specific field, and on other factors than simply having the requisite qualifications on paper. Coming from the biotechnology field, I can say that over half the biotech employees in the US with graduate degrees were foreign-born–not because they are cheaper (very few of them, in fact, are on H1Bs) but because that is the supply. For a lot of reasons, most of which are, in my opinion, cultural, American kids are shunning technical fields while foreigners, especially Asians, compete ferociously to get into colleges that teach science. nnDo we have a shortage? We are beginning to have one, because of anti-immigration climate here and growing opportunities there. The reverse brain drain is taking hold in a big way, especially with regard to China.nnThe combination of disinvestment in education and discouragement of immigration are going to combine to destroy America’s competitiveness in this industry, at least.

  • http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Adventure-Capitalist/ Rajeev Mantri

    Vivek,nnI think Google and Facebook are in this intense competition for talent because they are trying to do similar things, and they aren’t really innovating. Facebook wants to build a universal messaging system to take on Gmail, Google wants to build social elements into its products (Google Buzz, Google Me).nnThere’s no shortage of talent – there’s a shortage of creative leaders in the technology industry who are willing to stick their neck out and *innovate*. There’s a contentment and laziness which is breeding stagnation and copycat products at least among the “established” Internet companies.nnBest,nRM

  • Anonymous

    My dad who is in his 50s goes to his regular hangout to chat and play cards with his friends. Once in a while, a few in their group would go missing and then he would complain that it’s hard to find people who can shuffle the deck with him. nnThe problem could be that companies are not looking hard enough below the top layer of talent. nA lot of times companies (and people) try to recruit from their own “networks”. Stanford begets Stanford. Ex-googlers, hire their former colleagues, etc. People are wary of talent which is outside the top-tier network of colleges, companies, etc.

  • http://bmic.org Bill Washburn

    I’d say that the enormous challenge with engineers and engineering education is the relatively short half-life problem once these men and women enter the work force. The shortage is, I believe, largely a matter of the mismatch between what companies are looking for in terms of the latest, most in-demand skills/experience/capabilities and what engineers bring to the table once they’ve been in the workforce for five or ten years. nnMany engineering professionals are at least superficially rather more out of date than would be the case in many other professions. This could be particularly myopic thinking for many recruiters and company HR people because experienced engineers bring quite often skills and knowledge, capabilities and perspective that can be particularly valuable.nnThe upshot is there is technically a shortage of exactly what companies are looking for within the category of technical professions. And that is so even though there is not a shortage in the sheer aggregate number of engineers overall…

  • Sanjay

    Is there a re shortage of Engineers?? NO there is not a shoratge of engineers. But that is too broad a category. Is there are shortage of Objective C developers in Silicon Valley? YES. Is there a shoratge of good analog engineers who understand low power design or good UI designers? YES. So there are some skill sets that are in short supply , and some geographies that dont have the right skills (hard to find good RF engineers in NYC or Indiana) and then there is the issue of seniority and compensation. So finding the right skill set in the right geography and a engineer at the right level (individual contributor, manager, architect) and compenstion maybe difficult. But technology is making geography less relevant and the economic slowdown menas people are hungrier.

  • Prof. Earl Dowell

    Vivek,rnrn First of all, it is interesting that we ask this question about engineers, but we rarely ask this question about lawyers, doctors, rock musicians, or any number of other job categories. The point is that whatever the answer anyone gives to the question, almost everyone recognizes that having an adequate supply of excellent as well as merely competent engineers is important to our economic health. rnrn Having said that I do think the payment of hiring and retention bonuses is a valid measure of the acuteness of the need for engineers at any given point in time. Moreover, if you look at averages, engineers with graduate degrees are better paid than, for example, lawyers and rock musicians. However the range of salaries for engineers is much smaller than the range of salaries for lawyers and rock musicians, for example. And it is the high end of the salary range than tends to get compared and hence the publicu2019s perception of the relative attractiveness of these careers.rnrn So my take on all this is that salaried engineers of excellent quality are underpaid and that is why they may wish to become entrepreneurs! But the average engineer is doing very well financially compared to the average lawyer and rock musician and in fact the supply is adequate and market conditions adapt to make it so. As you know many people who work as engineers have degrees in other fields, usually in one of the sciences.rn