Engineers and Retiring Trends: Does COVID-19 Play a Role?
Engineering projects are usually not a 9-to-5 endeavor, work must be completed on time, and long hours are not uncommon. Working the same job with hectic schedules can take its toll over the years and decades, leaving engineers looking forward to retirement — or at least that’s the notion for some. Each year, millions of Baby Boomers retire from the labor force, with a good percentage leaving the engineering fields. According to a Pew Research report, about 28.6 million Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, reported that they were out of the labor force due to retirement in the third quarter of 2020. Over the next 19 years, 10,000 Baby Boomers will become 65 years old every day, the nominal retirement age among engineers and other professions.*
Of course, engineers will represent a small percentage out of those 10,000, but those numbers could create a huge impact on the number of employed engineers over the next decade. The number of retirees may have accelerated over the last year due to the pandemic. The Pew report states that since February of 2020, the number of retirees increased to around 1.8 million.
While those numbers could be associated with seasonal changes in employment activity, between February and September of last year, the population of retired Boomers rose by 250,000. Since the pandemic began, companies have shifted their structural organization to a work-at-home platform to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This includes engineers in almost every discipline.
Before the pandemic, 17% of U.S. employees worked from home five or more days a week, which increased by 44% during the spread of the coronavirus. The remote work trend accelerated due to imposed quarantines and lockdowns made commuting and working in labs or offices impossible for millions of people. Restrictions have eased over the last months, allowing workers to resume in-office work. Still, some engineering companies have allowed staff to continue working from home or splitting their time between remote and in-office work.
That being said, the labor force (those working or seeking work) initially fell much greater for prime-age (those aged 25 to 54) workers during the pandemic. It fell 82.9% in February 2020 to 79.8% in April 2020. Those numbers have since jumped 1.3 points, to 81.1% in February of this year. On the other hand, Boomers have shown no rebound from last spring compared to younger engineers in the workforce or those seeking employment. In a recent report, U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, Lydia Boussour, stated that the unique health risks to older workers during the pandemic have likely discouraged them from rejoining the workforce. Roughly 2.1 million workers have left the labor force due to retirement since the onset of the pandemic, nearly double that of 2019.
The pandemic isn’t a catalyst for early retirement but more of an accelerant to an aging population of engineers who continue to choose to retire from their professions or provide consultation or education services. Of course, this presents another problem, especially for new engineers entering the workforce: are Boomers taking their engineering knowledge with them when they retire? Generation X (those born between the mid-1960s and early 1980s) and Millennials (those born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s) have already moved into the decision-making levels in their engineering career path. As more Boomers retire, it’s up to the next generations to pick up the slack, but do they need the previous generation’s knowledge base to move forward?
In a 2018 Pulse of Engineering survey conducted by GlobalSpec, companies do little to garner information from retiring engineers, which seems startling due to the perceived amount of knowledge loss that goes with outgoing engineers. Some engineers prefer not to pass on their insights as a way to retain their jobs in a slowing economy, which isn’t unheard of considering some companies still support last-gen hardware and software. In 2019, one in three businesses was still using Windows XP, and some companies are still utilizing legacy systems that can go back decades.
If peoples’ knowledge isn’t being transferred, where does that put the new generation of engineers if past knowledge isn’t being utilized? It’s important to realize that engineers entering the workforce already have a solid foundation in terms of knowledge, more so in programming than previous generations. Learning is part of the job, no matter the engineering discipline, but solid skill sets will also help the latest generations on their career path. Younger engineers are more familiar with multiple programming languages that go beyond C , such as Python, Scala, TypeScript, and many others.
Today’s engineers also have a vast repository of knowledge for both hardware and software that can be accessed anytime and anywhere, thanks to the internet. Books, peer reviews, online training courses, webinars, white papers, conferences, and more are just a mouse click away, which was unheard of 40 years ago. That said, there are stark contrasts between Boomers and Millennials, where most Boomers tend to stay with one company throughout their careers. At the same time, new engineers are more likely to change jobs or even start new companies during their career paths. The engineering landscape has also become more competitive and harder to navigate, with companies often asking for more while providing less to achieve project goals.
Economic trends also play a role for Boomers retiring from the engineering workforce, as downturns leave companies with no choice but to furlough staff at greater rates than in a booming economy. Projects are put on the back burner or canceled outright during those times, and a more extensive staff is no longer needed. While some Boomers are taking SME (Subject Matter Expert) initiatives, consulting or teaching positions, and even part-time work, 2019 and 2020 surveys have shown that more are leaving the community outright, leaving a large gap that will be difficult to fill as the pandemic subsides.
* In 1983, Congress raised the retirement age. The age at which people will be able to retire with full benefits will rise on a gradual basis until it reaches 67 for those born in 1960 or later. -ed.
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