Unemployment rate for electrical engineers soars

But it's near full employment for software developers, whose unemployment rate falls from last year to 2.2%

The unemployment rate for people at the heart of many tech innovations, electrical engineers, rose sharply in the first quarter of this year. The reasons for the spike aren't clear, but the IEEE-USA says the increase is alarming.

Electrical engineering jobs declined by 40,000 in the first quarter, and the unemployment rate in the category rose to 6.5%, based on an analysis of U.S. Labor Data by the IEEE-USA.

At the same time, the data showed that jobs for software developers are on the rise. The unemployment rate for software engineers was 2.2% in the first quarter, down from 2.8% in 2012, IEEE-USA said. Some 1.1 million software developers were employed during the first quarter.

In 2010 and 2011, the unemployment rate for electrical engineers held at 3.4%. In 2012 there were 335,000 electrical engineers counted in the workforce; it's now at 295,000.

"Seasonal fluctuations are normal, but the first quarter unemployment spike is alarming," said Keith Grzelak, the IEEE-USA's vice president of government relations, in a statement.

This professional group warns that unemployment rates for engineers could get worse if H-1B visas are increased. The increase in engineering unemployment comes at the same time demand for H-1B visas is up.

The U.S. reported this week that it had received 124,000 H-1B petitions for the 85,000 visas allowed under the cap.

The IEEE-USA has long opposed efforts to raise the H-1B cap.

The organization recently came out in support of legislation by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would require U.S. companies to make a good faith effort to first hire U.S. workers, raise the salaries of H-1B workers and restrict use of the visa by overseas firms. The engineering group has been arguing for an shift to permanent immigration for science, technology, engineering and math grads.

Grzelak said that "as Congress considers proposals to double H-1B guest worker visas for high tech-workers, they should remember the doctor's oath to first, do no harm," he said.

"It makes no sense to stomp on the accelerator when the road signs suggest we are already headed in the wrong direction," said Grzelak.

But the unemployment for software developers in the first quarter was at 2.2%. In 2012 the unemployment rate was 2.8% and in 2011, 4%.

Victor Janulaitis, CEO of Janco Associates, a research firm that analyzes IT wage and employment trends, believes the number of employed software developers would be higher if not for offshoring of jobs, and the low unemployment number may be masking the number of people who have left the job market.

In tech hiring overall, the TechServe Alliance, which represents IT services firms, said that the tech workforce reached 4.4 million in March, an increase of 14,800 from February, despite the overall low employment growth last month. The results show that demand in the tech sector is strong "with shortages in many skill sets," said Mark Roberts, the group's CEO, in a statement.

But in at least one category, electrical engineers, there is a problem.

For a country to have wealth, you need engineers with the ability "to make something out of nothing," said Janulaitis.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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