Technological advances create a demand for mechanical engineers

by Donald L. Johnson

The effects of automation on employment have long been debated. But today, there is little doubt that automation and the increasing penetration of robotics in more economic sectors will alter the demand for labor and its occupational composition. As far back as 1984, a study sponsored by the National Science Foundation and conducted by Wassily Leontief and Faye Duchin projected that over time the use of automation would make it possible to use less labor than would normally be required to produce the same amount in the absence of automation. Leontief and Duchin also found one of the significant impacts of automation would be to cause a significant increase in professionals as a proportion of the labor force and a steep decline in the relative number of clerical workers.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2014) in The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies noted that technologies like big data and analytics, high-speed communications, and rapid prototyping are increasing the value of people with the right engineering, creative, or designing skills. The net effect has been to decrease demand for less skilled labor while increasing the demand for skilled labor. Skill-biased technical change results in different hiring patterns that increase the demand for highly educated workers. One of their fundamental recommendations is that students “…acquire skills and abilities that will be needed in the second machine age.”

Automation and Robotics Career Outlook
One industry projected to be one of the professions needed in the ‘second machine age’ of automation and advanced robotics technology is mechanical engineering.

Mechanical engineering, one of the broadest engineering disciplines, applies to a wide variety of industries, ranging from planning and designing engines to overseeing the installation of heating and cooling systems. In addition to the engineering services industry, mechanical engineers work in the scientific research and development services industry as well as several manufacturing industries such as aerospace product and parts manufacturing, motor vehicles parts manufacturing, navigation, measuring, electromedical, and control instruments manufacturing, and other machinery manufacturing.

Mechanical engineers job outlook

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

As a group, employment of mechanical engineers are projected by the BLS to grow about a fast as the average for all engineering and nearly as fast as the average for all occupations. However, according to the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, job prospects may be best for those who have knowledge of the most recent advances in technology and those with training in the latest software tools and experience with three-dimensional printing. As a result, the employment of mechanical engineers is projected to increase more than three times faster (by 19 percent) in engineering services because of the increased emphasis on automation and software.

Mechanical engineering requires a bachelor’s degree and internships are highly recommended for preparing students to work in the industry.

About the author
Donald L. Johnson has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Tennessee and serves as senior researcher and principle investigator for ORISE workforce studies. With more than 20 years of experience in surveying both industry and academia, he has conducted dozens of analyses related to science and engineering labor market trends, and on issues such as workforce skills, adequacy of labor supply, education requirements and employment demand.

Current Research Opportunities in Automation and Robotics

Opportunity Title Opportunity Number Organization Program Location