Engineering has become an "it" degree, recent grads are discovering, in both traditional tech professions and across the economy. While the unemployment rate for people with bachelor's degrees was 3.9 percent in December 2012, says Mark Regets, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation, the rate for engineers was 2 percent.
And the picture will only get rosier with the aging of the baby boomers. "Half of the engineers in the power industry are going to be retiring in the next five years," says T.E. "Ed" Schlesinger, department head of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
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Civil engineers, for example, are benefiting from a boom in new construction and an urgent need to update the nation's aging infrastructure that has only been exacerbated by recent catastrophic weather events like "super storm" Sandy.
"They're looking at gas pipelines, water, waste water, buildings—making sure they all stay safe during those events," says Dan Wittliff, president of the National Society of Professional Engineers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the current crop of some 263,000 civil engineers will grow 19 percent by 2020.
"I like taking something when it's in the planning stages and bringing it to life," says Brittani Grant, who, after finishing her master's degree in civil engineering in December 2012 at Carnegie Mellon, headed straight into her dream position—staff engineer at Clark Construction, helping build the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
"There are not many people in their construction career who can say they built a museum that's going to stand for hundreds of years," she says.
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Environmental, petroleum, and computer engineers are similarly in demand, both for their part in the infrastructure update and for tackling other high-priority challenges, such as climate change and energy exploration and production technology development.
"You hear about smart grids and smart meters—it's the whole idea of bringing information technology to the power industry. This is driving an enormous need for engineers," says Schlesinger.
Nuclear and petroleum engineering grads boast the highest median salaries, in the $126,000 to $129,000 range, according to the NSPE's latest salary survey.
Despite the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan after the 2011 earthquake there, enthusiasm for nuclear energy has not noticeably waned in the United States, says Wittliff, who thinks the number of jobs for nuclear and petroleum engineers will grow in the "15 to 20 percent range over the next 10 years."
Computer engineers start at just under $70,000 a year, according to figures from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Civil engineers average about $55,000, the median for engineers of all types, though grads with a master's degree command about 10 percent more than that, Wittliff says.