As we complete our annual engineering salary survey, it might be a good time to review the employment environment for fields related to manufacturing. Thankfully, the jobs picture is improving. The unemployment claims rate has dropped to a “mere” 8.8%.

But the overall economic situation is unsettling on many levels. Perhaps the most noteworthy is that the U. S. now has more government workers — 22.5 million — than manufacturing workers — 11.5 million. Wall Street Journal writers point out that this is a complete reversal of how things were in the 1960s heydays of U. S. growth when 15 million workers labored in production jobs and 8.7 million collected government paychecks.

Ponder the latter point in light of another factoid: Median household income in the U. S. has stagnated over the last 14 years, according to data compiled by the Census Bureau. Moreover, average hourly earnings for U. S. production workers have been falling since 2007.

In other words, most people in the U. S. have not seen their standard of living rise for a decade and a half. It isn’t hard to understand why this is so by considering another factoid: Government workers outnumber not just manufacturing workers. There are more government workers today than those engaged in manufacturing, farming, fishing, construction, forestry, mining, and utilities combined.

While the ranks of U. S. government workers rose, debt in the U. S. grew by over 100% of gross domestic product in the last decade to $14 trillion. Economists look at government debt in terms of what it buys for the economy. In the case of the U. S., this rise in debt has brought neither more jobs nor any increase in wages, at least not in the private sector. And in fact, some economists think government spending may account for the entire increase in GDP for the last decade.

All in all, government is one of the few growth areas for jobs. No wonder, then, that surveys of college grads find more and more of them aspiring to government careers. It is hard to see how the U. S. can “out innovate” its competitors, as our politicians advocate, when many of its college grads want to find work at TSA or the Internal Revenue Service.

But there is good news about our international competitiveness: Government work is also at the top of the wish list for college graduates in China. The Economist reports that this year there were nearly 5,000 applications there for the sought-after post of “energy conservation and technology equipment officer,” and one government job available for every 64 takers of Chinese civil-service exams. Though we often hear warnings about being outengineered by the legions of Chinese now graduating with technical degrees, evidence is that few of them find real jobs. Nearly 28% of China’s 2011 graduating class failed to find work of any kind. Those who did typically received wages not much different from those of uneducated migrant workers.

So it seems the allure of government work for Chinese college grads is the same as for their U. S. counterparts: The pay is not great, but is offset by job security and good benefits.

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.