Mechanical engineering jobs are growing: 1999-2017

Mechanical engineering jobs are taking off. From 1999 to 2017, the number of jobs has increased from 200,000 to 295,000.

Mechanical Engineering

During the same period, the median salary increased from $55,000 to $87,000 in nominal dollars. (This amounts to a less-impressive $82,000 to $87,000 in inflation-adjusted 2017 dollars, but it’s still a raise).

(This data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Survey).

With so much talk about the decline of US manufacturing, what’s happening with the growth of mechanical engineers?

Did manufacturing decline? (And when?)

Let’s chart the trend of Production Occupations, a category which includes a massive variety of manufacturing (and some other) occupations. I’ve pulled out data going back to 1999, which is about as early as this data goes. (It does go back to 1995 but the categorization becomes tricky).

Production Occupations Full

Manufacturing fell in two waves: first in 1999-2003, then during the Great Recession from 2008-2010.

The first wave was worse, and the jobs never recovered. The second wave was significant, but jobs have partly recovered.

How is it that these production workers fell by ~3 million workers at the same time mechanical engineering jobs increased by 95,000?

Different styles of manufacturing

Production Occupations consists of manufacturing line workers like machinists, hand polishing workers, and pressing machine technicians. Both mechanical engineers and and line workers are involved in manufacturing. Mechanical engineers are involved in the design of products or the programming of complex automated manufacturing equipment. Meanwhile, line workers usually do more repetitive manual tasks.

When products become more complicated, or manufacturing processes become more automated, need for mechanical engineers increases while need for line workers decreases. There will be a continued need for line workers (there are still 9 million workers in production occupations), but the trend of more complicated and automated manufacturing is likely to boost mechanical engineering jobs more than production line workers.

Michigan: “carbon steel valley”

The growth of mechanical engineering jobs has been most pronounced in one state: Michigan. The state has roughly tripled its mechanical engineering jobs over the time span from ~13,000 to ~44,000.

16% of all U.S. mechanical engineering jobs are now in Michigan. This might not seem like much, but the state has only 3% of the nation’s population. This gives Michigan a location quotient (LQ) of over 5.1. This is a very high number–second place is Wisconsin with only 1.87.


Location Quotients (LQ) for mechanical engineering. An LQ greater than 1 indicates a state has a concentration of mechanical engineers higher than the national average.



Bureau of Labor Statistics – Occupational Employment Statistics

The catastrophe in Minnesota higher education funding

Minnesota state funding for its flagship university has plummeted nearly 50% as a fraction of the total budget, according to an analysis of budget documents from the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota.

In 2009, University funding made up 4.28% of the state budget but in 2017 it made up only 2.39%, a drop of 44%.


Minnesota state funding for the University of Minnesota system, as a percent of budget.

During the same time period, state tax revenues increased from $16.5 billion to $23.9 billion, an increase of 45%.

In 2017, the Minnesota Daily reported that legislators representing rural districts have shifted their support from the flagship University of Minnesota system to the Minnesota State system.

The University of Minnesota has 5 4-year campuses throughout the state, but the largest of the institutions is at the center of the Minneapolis-St. Paul (Twin Cities) metro area. The Twin Cities dominate the economics and demographics of Minnesota, representing over 60% of the state’s population and much of its industry.

Rural, and largely Republican, representatives may question why they should be sending hundreds of millions of dollars to the University system–with most of that going to the Twin Cities campus. The University of Minnesota–Twin Cities has made a push to become a more elite University, garnering more applications, research funding and out-of-state students. Previous University president Bob Bruininks had a campaign to make the University one of the top 3 public research universities. In light of recent political developments, perhaps the University would have been better served keeping its focus closer to home.

The Minnesota State system, in contrast has a total of 54 campuses throughout the state with mixture of 2- and 4-year campuses. The State system has also seen its funding decrease as a fraction of state budget, from 4.13% to 2.81%, representing a large, but less dramatic 32% decrease.

Unfortunately for the University system, the situation could get much worse. Public opinion has diverged sharply. Republicans across the country have become much more skeptical of universities in the past couple of years, according to Pew Research.


For universities in states with a roughly equal political divide, like Minnesota, the decline in support from half of the electorate will continue to translate into lower funding from the state.

In Minnesota Daily’s coverage of the 2017 budget cycle, Larry Jacobs of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University said:

This is one of the worst legislative sessions for the University in some time

The decline in state funding has put pressure on students. 2009 was the last year the University got more money from state funding than tuition. Since then, tuition revenue has continued to increase, as state funding has faltered.


University of Minnesota Revenue from tuition and state funding in 2008 dollars.

Tuition revenue will probably continue to go up. University president Eric Kaler is in favor of higher tuition for out-of-state students.

From my recollection as a student at the University, nearly all the in-state students I knew were from the Twin Cities area. Outreach to rural areas is critical for the future of the University’s state funding.

It appears the University system is at least attempting to bridge the gap. In a recent PR push, the University is attempting to highlight the contributions and connections of the University system to the state at large.

The logo screen featured at the end of the video puts the campuses in alphabetical order. They use the ‘Twin Cities’ moniker rather than Minneapolis-St. Paul, which puts the flagship campus last of the 5.


The Twin Cities campus

Watch the whole video here:


Excel Workbook Analysis:








Why do colleges have athletics programs?

$12.50 per semester. That’s the stadium fee at the University of Minnesota that all students are forced to pay.

TCF Bank Stadium was completed in 2009. As a student of the university at the time, the $300 million stadium was hard to swallow. Typical, I thought, of the greedy administrators to spend lavishly on athletics while the rest of the students got shafted by increasing tuition. This I thought to myself while going to class in the then-decrepit Amundson Hall.

Why should colleges even have varsity athletics? Shouldn’t they focus on academics and research? Do they do it for the money, the tradition, the community? What’s really driving the massive, sprawling, growing entertainment machine that is college sports?

Certainly, money plays a role. The real story of college athletics financing, both at Minnesota and around the country, is complex. Traditions come into the mix as well–some sports programs have been around for over 100 years. Community backlash was fierce when University of Alabama at Birmingham cancelled its football program. There are also other, harder-to-quantify effects on things like applications and alumni donations. In total, all these factors have an effect.


One angle on college athletics is that they’re a resource sink, they run at a loss and need to be subsidized by the university general fund. This report from the American Council on Education takes that stance.

Another take is that they generate massive profits. One CNNMoney article from 2010 claimed that college sports make an overall profit of $1.1 billion.

Why this dicrepancy? Well, first of all, “Not all data is created equal”. According to Kristi Dosh, founder of There are two different sources of data, the Department of Education and the NCAA. The NCAA data is more thorough, according to Dosh, but is only available for public universities, and must be requested individually.

Second, each group has different incentives when it comes to spinning the story of college athletics finances. The NCAA uses slim profit margins as a justification for not paying student athletes. The athletics programs themselves don’t want to appear too profitable, or too expensive as put brilliantly by Andy Schwarz on Deadspin:

They want to hide their profits to make it easier to keep them away from other would-be claimants. They also want to avoid looking so poor that other stakeholders within academia use sports’ apparent poverty to strip them of power.

An in-depth report in the Washington Post shows that athletics programs are close to break-even on the whole. A handful report big profits, and a handful report losses.


Revenues and spending by the biggest athletics departments at public colleges in 2004. More profits and more losses. Close to break-even according to an analysis by Washington Post. Data from NCAA.

The report highlights some spending in athletics programs that looks irresponsible. One example is at Auburn University. A stadium expansion that included the largest jumbotron in college football–190 feet wide and 57 feet tall–at Auburn costed $13.9 million. In that year, according to the Washington Post analysis, the Auburn athletics program ran a deficit of $17 million.

Still, there are reasons to be skeptical that this is the full picture of the finances. The details are complex and vary from college to college. One case study is the University of Alabama-Birmingham. UAB stopped its football program. Some claimed the football program was costing $17 million per year. An outside accounting firm was hired to audit the program in the aftermath of the closure. In a 156-page report, they found that the program would actually make $500,000.

Why is it so tricky? For one thing, future revenues and donations are uncertain. When the shutdown was imminent, donors pulled together and raised $10 million in an attempt to save the program. Additionally, according to Kristi Dosh, sources of athletics revenue like merchandising and donations are not fully reflected on athletics departments’ financial statements. Further, the true cost of scholarships granted to student athletes is an issue of some debate.

In reality, most programs are probably revenue neutral to slightly positive. On the extremes, some programs make big profits or suffer big losses, but these are the exceptions.

Why colleges may want high-spending athletics departments

Athletics programs are probably happy to spend every dollar they bring in. Certainly, the programs don’t exactly have an incentive to be penny pinchers. They won’t be able to hold on to any profits they earn anyways. Why might college administration be OK with this high spending?

In good times, colleges might be able to run athletics programs at a tidy profit if they were to keep a tight rein on spending. But at public colleges, any profits made by athletics will cause the state to reduce its funding package. Lower state funding would be hard to increase in the future.

Additionally, when harder times do hit, the relatively plush budgets can be cut. In this way, the athletics budget gives schools a bit of wiggle room or ballast to play with to counteract economic and budget cycles.


Money is likely not the only motivating factor for college athletics. More important is the impact of successful athletics on attitudes on-campus and in the community. Athletic success gets a college’s name out there in a positive light. Students on a campus with a winning athletic program have more school spirit and may be more likely to donate in the future. Colleges with winning programs may also get more applications. In one sense, these impacts are ultimately financial, but they’re harder to measure and less immediate.

So how big of an impact does athletic success have? Well, when University of Kentucky won the Final Four basketball final in April 2012, the applications to the school increased markedly in the Fall of 2013.


Applications at University of Kentucky. Applications greatly increased in the years after their final four win. Analysis: Sharp Data Insight. Source: IPEDS.

The number of applications increased about 30% from about 15,000 to 20,000 in one year. While applications were increasing beforehand, they increased much more quickly after the win, then decreased two years after back to the previous trend. Together, this indicates a temporary spike in applications caused by the final four win.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. There’s a lot of published research into the impact of winning athletics programs. Work from Harvard Business School looked at athletics programs and showed that winning football teams had a temporary advertising effect on applications. When a team from “mediocre” to “great”, it had an expected effect of increasing applications by 18%. This effect was largest in students with lower academic achievement.

There is some difficulty in estimating the causal impact of athletics’ on other areas because the direction of causality is hard to determine. Skilled college management might increase success across the board. Further, donations to athletics programs might cause increased success rather than the other way around.

One inventive approach researchers at UC Berkeley used was to incorporate bookkeeper odds as a predictor. In other words, it’s not just victory, but unexpected victory that was being assessed. The researchers found a strong impact of victory (conditioning on bookkeeper odds) on donations, in-state-enrollment, academic reputation and acceptance rate. Notably, the effect was strongest in the “Power 5” conferences and only assessed for Division I football schools.

In light of these impacts, athletics are not merely about money, at least not in a calculated, short-term way. Applications, alumni pride and athletic success are all part of a more general excellence towards which college leaders strive.


(For this section I draw heavily from

College athletics have a long history. In the early days (1850-1900), it was organized by students and either tolerated or even resisted by administrators. Intercollegiate competitions were held in several sports including rowing, tennis, football, baseball and ice hockey.

By the early 1900s, college football had already become a big spectator event. The Yale Bowl opened in 1914 with a spectator capacity of 70,000. In those days, college athletics were dominated by today’s elite academic institutions: Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago for example.

In the 1910s and 1920s, college sports became more commercialized. Finances, player compensation and football violence all raised concerns. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report on college sports reform in 1929. Then, during the depression and World War 2, not much happened.

In the aftermath of World War 2, college sports faced competition from the NFL and NBA. Many smaller programs were forced to shut down in the 1950s.


Number of college football programs shut down by decade, non-division 1. Data from Wikipedia. Analysis by Sharp Data Insight.

In the 60s, 70s and 80s, college sports were reformed by additional rules from NCAA as well as Title IX. Today, college sports are more commercialized than ever. Nowadays, college football is dominated by big, mostly public universities in the Midwest and South and on the West Coast.

It’s tempting to thing of college sports as unique to today’s corporate-minded universities, but sports have been there for a long time, alongside, and perhaps distracting from, colleges’ academic missions.

This history adds extra weight to these programs. While sports programs sometimes do close under financial strain, it’s difficult to be the one to break a chain that’s been going for so many years.

What’s Next?

For most big college football programs, the financial situation looks stable–at least for now.


Number of college football programs shut down by decade, Division I. Data from Wikipedia. Analysis by Sharp Data Insight.

In the 2010s, 11 D1 football programs closed, the most of any decade. University of Alabama-Birmingham closed its program in 2015, but reopened in 2017. The last D1 programs to ‘successfully’ close were Hoftsra and Northeastern in 2009.

Despite the closures, applications at these schools have continued to climb:

Thus, it appears that not all schools need a football program to attract applicants.

If I were to make a prediction–I would say that universities that are academically strong may begin closing athletics’ programs, particularly in the Ivy League. The sport of football has come under a lot of scrutiny for head injuries. At small elite institutions, admissions committees would be happy to get rid of athletically earmarked admission slots. Hardly anyone pays attention to football at Yale, Harvard, etc and they’re certainly not going to lose any prestige or national attention. Could The Ivy League, which historically had a leading role in the development of college sports, now begin to close it down? Perhaps, and perhaps not.

All in all, many factors contribute to the continuation of college athletics. Although big, well-funded athletics programs fit somewhat awkwardly with colleges’ academic missions, students, alums and the community certainly enjoy these sports. It’s hard to see the overall structure of college sports going away anytime soon.

A look at the Eau Claire buzz

It might have been Wisconsin’s best kept secret.

Eau Claire is a town of 65,000 people in Northwestern Wisconsin. It boasts lush greenery, riverfront bike paths, low crime, a low cost of living and a stable economic base. Recently, the secret has gotten out. The city has gotten buzz for its music festival and development in its downtown.

The buzz

Eau Claire is most famous nationally for being the hometown of musician Justin Vernon. Vernon’s band Bon Iver went from regional to national fame with a Grammy win in 2012. In 2015, Vernon founded the eclectic Eaux Claires music festival, which packs a punch, culturally and economically, bringing in 20,000 attendees every year.

A scattering of media coverage ensued, starting in 2017 with pieces in usatoday.comVice Media and CityLab. These articles focused on the charm of the Eaux Claires festival, outsiders’ impressions of the area and improvements to Eau Claire’s downtown area.

Justin Vernon is a partner in the Oxbow Hotel in downtown Eau Claire, which opened its doors in October 2016. In terms of aesthetics, the hotel has a modern, chic vibe. Based on the pictures, you might think it was located in a bigger city.

The hotel also features a music venue with unique events. One such event is a ‘Lock Inn‘ with a performance featuring Vernon, as well as:

  • Overnight stay in our award-winning rooms

  • Six-course dinner crafted by Chef Nathan Berg

  • Exclusive access to live musical performances by Vernon, Carey, and friends throughout the evening (dinner music, featured music, late night music, and more)

  • Morning Vinyl Vinyasa yoga session

Tickets go from $300-$500 per person.

On September 22nd, the Pablo Center will open in the center of downtown Eau Claire at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. The center cost $51 million dollars and will feature visual arts galleries as well as a 1,200 seat theater. It will also serve as classroom space for University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire.

Population trends

With all the excitement over cultural trends in Eau Claire and development downtown, how much of it is translating into economic and population growth?

A non-profit organization that promotes downtown Eau Claire boasted that the city had the highest population growth of any city in the state outside of Madison. More recent U.S. Census population estimates show other cities–Appleton and Green Bay–have slightly higher growth from 2010-2017.


Growth of Wisconsin metropolitan and micropolitan areas using 2017 Census Bureau estimates. Cities are ordered in population size (Merrill smallest, Milwaukee largest).

The above bar graph is ordered by population. Cities on the left tend to have low or negative growth while cities on the right have higher growth. In other words, small cities get even smaller, and big cities tend to get even bigger. Eau Claire is already in the top 7 cities in the state in population, so it only makes sense its growth would be above average.


Population growth vs. population. 2017 Census Bureau estimates are used. Milwaukee not shown.

Plotting growth vs. population, a trend emerges. Cities above the trend (more growth than cities of similar size) tend to be in proximity to even bigger cities. Baraboo, Eau Claire and Menomonie are examples of this. Baraboo is close to Madison. Menomonie and Eau Claire are close to the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Indeed, an article from the Pioneer Press reported that population growth all over Western Wisconsin is high due to proximity with the Twin Cities.

But these population changes are based on estimates from the Census Department. The next census population survey won’t be until 2020. Is there any way to get information using actual yearly surveys?

Job trends

While census data won’t be available until 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects surveys through its Occupational Employment Statistics program every year, for every metro area. Jobs correlate strongly with population, and strong job growth would be a necessary ingredient for durable population growth.

Metro area jobs over time, all occupations. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics survey.



Here we compare job numbers for three similar metro areas–Eau Claire, Wausau and Appleton. They are relatively close in size and region. There doesn’t seem to be much difference in overall job trends. All three have stable growth over time in absolute numbers of jobs.

City job growth over time, all occupations. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics survey.

Normalizing to 2011, we can find the percentage growth. Again, there is not much difference, although we see Eau Claire slightly behind the other two cities.


Metro area median salaries over time, all occupations. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics survey.

We can also investigate the median pay for all occupations in each city. It appears that there is no clear evidence of a difference.

It appears that economically at least, Eau Claire is much like its peers in the state of Wisconsin.

The future for Eau Claire

There is no doubt that culturally, the downtown corridor of Eau Claire has seen a lot of development and modernization. The Oxbow and the Pablo Center have attracted a couple of polished gastropubs with long tap lists–the kind you’d be used to seeing in bigger cities.

Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Wausau. Based on photos and reviews, the establishments in downtown Eau Claire do seem to have a bigger city and more modern feel than Wausau. But for the moment, the economic impact isn’t pushing Eau Claire past other cities in the state.


Foxconn’s building on Grand Ave has sat empty since 2016.

Of course, that could all change. Foxconn, which manufactures for Apple, announced it will open a tech office in downtown Eau Claire and hire 150 new employees. They said talent from the area’s colleges and a supportive business community are reasons they chose Eau Claire. It’s certainly possible that the momentum of the downtown development will attract enough investment to move the needle on the overall economics of the city. But so far, it’s looking like it’s confined to the downtown corridor.

A modest Midwestern success

In an era when so much economic development is being funneled into big cities, the continued growth in cities like Eau Claire is a success. The development in downtown Eau Claire has a buzzy quality, and a sheen of big city happenings about it. For the time being though, Eau Claire is what it’s always been–something ordinary and remarkable at the same time–a quiet, safe, affordable, livable Midwestern town.

Banner photo credit: Ty Johnson. Link

This job has a surprisingly rosy outlook

How will you plan your next vacation?

Travel agents were once the method of choice for booking your next getaway. Now, online applications have allowed consumers to directly navigate complex purchase decisions like airline tickets. So travel agents are going the way of film projection operators, right?

A surprising comeback

After some difficult years, travel agent jobs are making a slight but definite comeback. Travel agent jobs fell from 2000-2003, likely as a result of improved travel websites, and then again from 2008-2012 during the financial crisis.

All told, travel agent jobs fell from 143,000 in 2001 to 73,000 in 2011, according to That knocked out about half of the entire profession. CareerTrend gathers data from several public data sets according to their methodology page.


Travel agent jobs have made a comeback since 2011. Expectations of a continued drop have been proven incorrect.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes job projections every 2 years. The projection was for continued decline in ’12, ’14 and ’16. Despite the projections of a decline, travel agent jobs actually rose to 81,700 in 2016, a rise of more than 10% from the bottom in 2011.

What could account for the recent rise?

Corporate travel

It’s not just the BLS reporting an improving market for travel agents. According to a 2016 article in Travel Market Report, the outlook for travel agents is “merry and bright”.

This is being fueled by high demand for corporate travel, according to the article. An important skill for corporate travel agents is using a GDS (global distribution system), which is a technically sophisticated system that has direct access to airline seats and other travel inventory.

Growing interest

Negative expectations have been the norm for years in the industry, but green shoots are starting to emerge.

Travel Market Report writes:

At the same time, demand for travel-agency services seems to be growing across the board. MMGY’s annual Portrait of American Travelers showed the use of agents has been growing for four consecutive years

Google searches about travel agents have also recovered slightly in the last few years.

Travel Agent Search Trend

Google Trends search for the topic “Travel Agents” — From 2004-2018

A rising tide

It’s hard to say exactly why more people are searching for and using travel agents. One factor is certainly an improving economy and a growing travel sector.

The travel industry is growing in the U.S. and internationally.

According to, from 2010 to 2016:

Digital skepticism

Independent or local travel agents may also be viewed as more trustworthy in an era of skepticism about big tech companies and data security.

Indeed, earlier this year, the travel site Orbitz (owned by Expedia) reported a data breach affecting at least 800,000 customers.

For consumers concerned about privacy and security, a local, trusted travel agent may be an option that provides more peace of mind.

Decision fatigue

Perhaps another reason people choose travel agents over booking themselves is the sheer volume of travel options available. When too many options are available, people may have a harder time deciding. Rather then spend all that time combing through reviews and websites, people may be happier if they leave it to a professional who knows their preferences.

Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, after all.

Upscale travel

New travel companies are focusing on unique and upscale experiences. Atlas Obscura is a Brooklyn-based startup in the travel and media industries.

Atlas Obscura’s trips focus on unique elements of local culture in under-the-radar destinations. These trips don’t come cheap. A tour of mountaintop Bhutanese festivals will run you $5,000–excluding airfare which could be another $2,000.


A masked person in Bhutan. Atlas Obscura offers tours of unexpected cultural events.

The model of upscale cultural travel seems to be working. Atlas Obscura raised $7.5 million in 2017.

The verdict

So should you become a travel agent? Travel agents are not likely to get rich, with median annual earnings of $36,460 in 2016, but the occupation has other upsides.

Travel Market Report reported that many travel agents are freelancers. The ability to work for yourself from home–especially in the travel industry–is attractive to many people, perhaps especially millennials.

The BLS also has more recent numbers, recorded in the Consumer Population Survey, which includes freelance and self-employed workers.

In one year from 2016 to 2017, the number of people who reported working as travel agents, including the self-employed, increased from 83,000 to 87,000 or about 5%.

Surprising job trends hidden in free public data

Sometimes the best things in life are free.

Free public data sets about occupations and careers have amazing stories to tell. I spent several weeks doing research for a website called using public data and assembled the data in a way that I’ve never seen before.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is segmented into different offices and different spreadsheets. This makes it a challenge to get the full picture.


Navigating — Historical data, and data about future expectations are stored separately and with different classification systems.



Why did they make it so hard? The BLS is interested in statistical rigor and consistent data collection, which they do very well. They provide some basic tools like the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which is a great place to start for any career seeker.

But for historical data and projections, the data for each year is stored separately and you have to go digging to find it and put it together.

Interesting Stories in the Data

The data have never come together to tell the whole story until now.Capture

A graph is worth a thousand words. As soon as you see it, you understand it. Here is the number of childcare jobs in the U.S. by year. The blue dots show the expected 10-year projections. We can see that the numbers have been decreasing since 2011 even though expectations are for an increase. These data have never been shown together this way, that I’m aware of.


What a contrast. Childcare workers declining despite expectations of increase. Animal care workers exceeding expectations. This is all buried in free public data sets.

You can learn so much from these free public data sets. I’ve done the hard work of digging them up and arranging them for you. Browse occupations here.

What Can Public Data Tell You?

What career should I choose? Public data will tell you what occupations are growing, where they are growing, how compensation is changing and more.

Where should I sell my products? Census tract data can tell you how educated and wealthy different zip codes are. You can find your market with public data.

What college should I go to? Public data can tell you about acceptance rate, typical cost, even salaries after graduation.

Sharp Data Insights

My mission with Sharp Data Insights is to look for compelling data sets in unexpected places. Beyond the data, I want to tell the stories and get the most unique insights possible. Want to learn more? About