Engineering has always been a diverse profession. Fifty years ago, “engineer” could refer to someone who worked on anything from buildings and bridges to aircraft and electrical systems. It has since expanded to encompass workers who contribute to software production, nanoscale materials and environmentally friendly (i.e., “green”) infrastructure.
With such diversity in possible career paths, today’s engineering students should carefully consider the short- and long-term outlooks of their prospective specializations. Not all engineering fields are created equal, at least in terms of expected employer demand and compensation. Let’s take a look at some of the tracks that are poised for growth:
1. Biomedical engineering
This subset of engineering involves the research, creation and testing of a wide variety of medical devices, including diagnostic equipment as well as artificial limbs and organs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were slightly over 22,000 biomedical engineers in 2014, but more than 5,000 additional jobs were expected to be added by 2024, for a 23 percent growth rate – much faster than the average for all professions.
These engineers had a 2016 median salary of $85,620. This high level of pay should continue as supply struggles to keep pace with demand. For instance, many new medical technologies will be needed as the U.S. population becomes older. The Population Reference Bureau estimated that there were 46 million Americans 65 or older in 2016; by 2060, that number could rise to 98 million, going from 15 percent to 24 percent of the entire population.
2. Petroleum engineering
Whereas biomedical engineering is the poster child of engineering’s future, petroleum engineering is more representative of its past. Petroleum engineers have coordinated the extraction of oil and gas for more than 150 years and were instrumental in the recognition of engineering as a distinctive profession. Their skills continue to be in high demand.
The BLS predicted 10 percent growth in petroleum engineer employment from 2014 to 2024, compared to 7 percent for all occupations and 4 percent for engineers as a whole. Oil prices are particularly important to employment levels here: High prices often trigger more aggressive drilling projects, which require additional engineer expertise. Between February 2016 and May 2017, the price of the benchmark West Texas Intermediate rose roughly 50 percent, per data compiled by Macrotrends.
3. Civil engineering
Infrastructure development continues to be a hot topic in both economics and politics in the U.S. However, no current proposal provides for the massive investment that the American Society of Civil Engineers thinks is needed to revitalize the country’s roads, dams, bridges, airports, electrical grid and water systems. ASCE gave U.S. infrastructure a “D+” on its most recent Infrastructure Report Card and estimated that $4.6 trillion worth of work was needed to get it back in acceptable shape.
Aging infrastructure will be a key driver of occupational growth for civil engineers. BLS numbers point to 8 percent expansion of the civil engineer workforce between 2014 and 2024. At the same time, the ongoing emergence of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power will necessitate civil engineering expertise in the design of solar arrays and wind farms. The median civil engineer had a salary of $83,540 in 2016.
4. Environmental engineering
Water supply quality and sustainability has become central issues for many municipalities in recent years, from Flint to Las Vegas. Addressing the current state of essential water systems is just one task that a modern environmental engineer might tackle. The broad scope of their work, along with the drive of many organizations to create sustainable infrastructure and comply with applicable regulations, has stoked demand and produced rapid growth in their profession.
The number of environmental engineers is expected to climb 12 percent from 2014 levels by 2024. This faster-than-average growth has similar drivers to the ongoing boom in civil engineering, namely widespread upgrades to infrastructure. Environmental engineers can contribute to the design of municipal water treatment systems, air quality improvement initiatives and contaminated site cleanup efforts, among many possible tasks.
5. Computer software engineering
A relatively recent addition to the engineering spectrum, software engineers create the applications, services and frameworks that power today’s consumer and enterprise computing systems. An engineer in this space might do anything from update a web app to manage the security features of a cloud computing platform.
Software engineering employment is surging, with a 17 percent expected increase from 2014 to 2024, according to the BLS. The growth rate for application developers is even higher, at 19 percent, while even the projection for systems software makers – 13 percent – is still comfortably ahead of the average for all professions. Where is all this demand coming from?
Start with the fact that many organizations are in the midst of implementing new software that modernizes their legacy systems, helps them corral insights for huge datasets and/or prepares them for the enormous scale distributed “smart” devices of the Internet of Things (IoT). IT research firm Gartner has projected that 8.7 billion connected “things” will be in service by the end of 2017 within the IoT, up 31 percent from 2016. These items will play important roles in numerous sectors in which there are already many other types of engineers, such as healthcare (biomedical), automotive (mechanical) and manufacturing (electrical).
Preparing for a career in engineering
Given the plethora of specialization possibilities available to engineering students, it is important that you select a degree program that offers the breadth and depth of instruction in the specific fields you are most interested in. Engineers of all kinds continue to perform critical roles across the economy and are generally well-compensated.
By working toward an engineering master’s degree from the University of California, Riverside, you can take advantage of several concentration options, including bioengineering, data science (a critical complement to modern software engineering) and environmental engineering.