The U.S. Workforce and Graduate Degree Attainment for Engineering Occupations 2008-2016

by Joseph Roy

Reprinted from ASEE connections.

The federal government collects[i] data on educational attainment of full time employed adults over age 25 that can be useful  to useful to understand what fields currently require in terms of educational attainment in the workforce. Comparison across time can yields some insights into how stable workforce requirements might be.  In 2008, 8.3 % of employed adults[ii] had a master’s degree.  By 2016, that number has risen to 10% of employed adults. In Table 1, the difference between the educational attainment for all occupations in the workforce and each engineering occupation is presented (by highest degree) from 2008 to 2016.  For each of the engineering occupations, there is a substantially larger group of individuals with master’s degrees over the total workforce. The lowest difference is 8.3 percentage points higher in 2008 and 9.4 percentage points higher for 2016 for industrial engineering. The largest difference is for environmental engineers who have 25 percentage points more master’s degrees from 2008 to 2016.

Table 1: Difference from Educational Attainment for Full-Time Workforce in All Occupations

Engineering Occupation Master Degrees Difference from All Occupations 2008 Master Degrees Difference from All Occupations 2016 Doctoral Degrees Difference from All Occupations 2008 Doctoral Degrees Difference from All Occupations 2016
Industrial engineers 8.3 9.4 -1.7 -2.2
Marine engineers and naval architects 8.5 9.5 -2.6 -3.0
Mechanical engineers 11.2 9.8 -1.4 -0.9
Computer hardware engineers 15.4 11.5 0.9 0.5
Agricultural/biomedical  engineers 11.9 13.5 3.3 3.9
Materials engineers 9.0 14.1 2.9 2.8
Electrical/electronics engineers, except computer 14.2 14.8 1.2 1.5
Civil engineers 15.6 15.6 0.4 -0.1
Chemical engineers 15.1 15.8 3.3 3.7
Mining, geological and petroleum engineers 11.8 16.9 2.6 1.8
All other engineers 17.5 17.3 2.5 3.0
Nuclear engineers 17.5 17.3 2.5 3.0
Aerospace engineers 19.9 20.5 2.0 2.0
Environmental engineers 25.1 25.9 2.6 1.7


Examining the same data for doctoral degrees yields a slightly different story. For doctoral degrees among employed adults, there was a smaller uptick in the workforce:  in 2008, 3.8% had doctoral degrees and in 2016, 4.2% had doctoral degrees. The occupations of marine/naval engineering, mechanical engineering and industrial engineering have adults with less doctoral degrees than the overall workforce in both 2008 and 2016. All other engineering occupations have a slightly or moderately higher proportion of workers with doctoral degrees.  Over the last ten years, engineering workers have required more advanced education than other occupations with nearly all engineering occupations employing both more adults with master’s and doctoral degrees than the rest of the US workforce. This trend’s stability is a sign that it will continue over the next ten years.

[i] Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table 5.3 Educational attainment for workers 25 years and older by detailed occupation, 2016-17

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table 1.11 Education and training measurements for workers 25 years and older by detailed occupation, 2008

[ii] All data in this post refers to highest degree attained for adults over 25 with full-time employment in the United States.

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