The professional maker movement has gained a lot of attention in the past few years. Maker Faire had a record-breaking 235,000 attendees at its national fairs last year (at least a 45,000-person increase since 2014) and the movement doesn’t seem like it’ll slow down any time soon.
In fact, the maker movement has been growing rapidly since 2008—coincidentally the same time as the last economic crisis. Which begs the question, is the maker movement the result of the aftermath of the 2008 market crash, or the byproduct of the newfound availability of professional-grade desktop manufacturing machines? Further, is a professional making career your only hope for job security?
According to Mike Loukides, vice president of content strategy for O’Reilly Media, the availability of U.S.-based manufacturing jobs has been on a steady decline. We all know this already. Above the cost-efficacy of outsourcing labor, Loukides believes most engineers lack the skills needed to properly oversee the full production cycle. Whether it’s no longer taught in universities, or something that simply comes with experience remains to be seen. Whatever the cause, the job market for electrical engineers has also suffered as a result.
The unemployment rate among electrical engineers increased from 3.4% to 4.8% between 2012 and 2014. This happened despite the overall decrease in the national unemployment rate from 8.3% to 6.6% between January 2012 and January 2014. Unfortunately, job prospects aren’t getting any better. Between 2013 and 2014, 35,000 electrical engineers lost their jobs, and there is 0% projected job growth between now and 2024. While data is limited regarding the specifics triggers of the maker movement, the nightmarish conditions of the job market for electrical engineers can’t be denied when assessing the motives for most professional makers, and the prospects for electrical engineers today.
How do we overcome? By nature, engineers are assertive. Engineering education equips students to solve problems, whether functional problems with machinery, or personal economic hardship. It should be no surprise, then, that the majority of makers have traditional or ad-hoc engineering backgrounds. With this, the variety of technologies and devices catered to makers is more plentiful than ever, making it perhaps even more appealing to join the maker movement, and encourage even novice makers and engineering students to do the same.
The sheer availability of professional-grade manufacturing machines on the market is overwhelming. From desktop milling machines and laser cutters to 3D printers and single board computers like Raspberry Pi 3, there’s no shortage of resources with which aspiring makers can make viable products. But is it a necessity for electrical engineers today?
John Baichtal looked at this in his new book, Maker Pro. The book serves as a collection of essays from professional makers who were able to make a living from their craft. Most of the makers featured in the book talk about one idea that took off and turned into a viable business, such as Andrew Huang’s Soylent Supply Chain. But he, too, had a traditional background as an engineer.
It comes down to a passion for creating. “Making” gives engineers the freedom to use their natural creativity to produce a product out of the love they have for their craft. It’s like a hobby that benefits your day job. Making gives people a sense of freedom and accomplishment when a final product comes after tens or hundreds of iterations.
Becoming a maker comes down to you, and whether or not you have an idea you’d like to explore, and the tenacity to see it through. The job prospects for electrical engineers aren’t getting any better, but they haven’t disappeared completely. Even if you pursue traditional engineering, becoming a “MakerPro” will require some assertiveness.
Cabe Atwell has been an electrical engineer for 17 years, but a creator for 30. He claims to be an engineer, machinist, writer, designer, maker, and inventor. He’s built and sold CNC equipment, paintball guns and accessories, a drink-mixing robot, motion-control products, LED lighting systems, motor drivers, haunted house effects, audio devices, circuits for an array of products, and countless custom work that would take too long to name.