Engineers hunker down, putting more drag on the job market

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(YinYang / E+ / Getty Images) The engineering job market is no longer in free fall, but neither is it returning to pre-COVID levels. Risk adversity has a lot to do with it.

In the early months of COVID-19, job postings for EE-related positions on the recruitment site ZipRecruiter were in free fall. From a high of 10,851 job postings the week of February 17, the number tumbled 45% before bottoming out in May.

By June, job postings had climbed halfway up to where they were pre-Covid. (A loss that is still significant, according to the online recruitment site ZipRecruiter.) But despite good news for a chunk of the tech sector, the number of postings has stayed a stubborn 20% below the peak, effectively languishing in steady state at around 8,400 posts per month.

EE job postings 2020 chart

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Quit rate might not be something most people first think about when it comes to the labor market, but it does have something to do with the sluggish recovery of jobs for tech now. “Before Covid, many people were looking to make a change, leaving their current job for better pay or greater opportunity. With the Covid situation, most people now are pretty risk adverse when it comes to their employment,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

That is especially true now, when staying at home is encouraged and many workers may not want to take on the uncertainty and potential stress associated with starting a new job. For many, taking a wait-and-see attitude can seem like the prudent course of action.

In fact, quit rates—the sign of a healthy job market—for professional and business services (which includes engineering) have tumbled from 650,000 per month before Covid to 540,000 in August.  

Another measure of the lack of enthusiasm for changing jobs is the click rate on job recruitment sites. According to Pollak, the number of eyeballs coming to ZipRecruiter has declined dramatically, a clear indication that there are far fewer job seekers out there kicking tires.

And there is also the fact that the tech sector is not as rosy as what it might appear to be in the media. “Yes, tech is strong, but at the same time funding has fallen globally since the crisis began, with some investors cautioning that the value of some businesses may have to change.  That has caused many companies to rush to hold off on hiring and to slash all of their discretionary expenses, which has a ripple effect in areas driven by tech such as data services, which was an area of huge growth before,” Pollak explained.

Noting that the breadth of the disruption is staggering, she said that many companies are pushing expenses out to next year, when they hope to have better visibility into when their business and sales will recover.

So for the foreseeable future, the 20% decline in job postings for engineers might well be the “new normal.” But there are some bright spots.

Pollak said that while traditional industries like aerospace and automotive may not be hiring engineering talent, grocery stores, building material suppliers, and some big retailers like Walmart are making huge investments in their websites, inventory management systems, and E-commerce platforms. Tech-savvy employees are needed to develop these capabilities.

In fact, she noted that Amazon alone has recently posted 30,000 corporate job openings. “They are looking for so many tech workers right now,” said Pollak,  “They could literally hire the entire graduating class of engineers in the U.S.”

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