Headlines these days have stopped screaming about layoffs. Now you are more likely to find news of manufacturers in hiring mode. Even in recession battered Michigan, job postings for mechanical engineers are said to be more than double what they were last year. But with a national unemployment rate still north of 9%, one wonders whether these reports can be true.

One place to test the strength of employment trends is with people who make their living finding new hires: headhunters and recruiters looking for engineers. Those we’ve talked to recently say their business is getting much better.

When we caught up with Chris Ohlendorf, a partner with the McKinley Group executive recruiters in Minneapolis, he was on his way out the door to a company looking for a mechanical engineer. “There is nothing special about the job. They are just struggling to find talent,” he says.

Ohlendorf says his firm has seen the demand for engineers spike across the board, but particularly so among manufacturers of consumer goods. “One area jumping off the page right now is in supply-chain management and procurement. That’s a good sign because it inevitably results in strong demand for functional areas within engineering.” Ohlendorf has also seen a rise in demand for what he calls “more technical EEs” and software engineers since the beginning of this year. “Software engineers doing embedded code in products are coming at a premium. EEs seem to be harder for companies to find, so they are coming to us,” he explains.

The uptick in hiring isn’t confined to the upper Midwest. “As I talk to my counterparts in other parts of the country, I get the sense strong hiring is pretty widespread. And we have projects active on both coasts,” he says.

The tightening job market is even having an impact on engineering salaries. “There were enough people out of work in 2009 that engineering salaries regressed. It took about a year for them to catch up and now they are rising,” he says.

Similar opinions come from Arthur Stamos, a recruiter with ITS Technologies near Toledo, Ohio. “We’ve seen a significant uptick in hiring across the board in the last 12 months, particularly among manufacturers and engineering consultants,” he says. Stamos claims he has more requests for engineers than he can meet and that the firm’s business has probably doubled in the past year.

Demand seems particularly strong for engineers working in machine controls, for design engineers, and for machine designers, he says. Manufacturers, in general, are hiring, but ITS is seeing a lot of recruiting interest among those in the solar and glass industries.

And to hear recruiters tell it, unemployed engineers are increasingly rare. “When things first started to pick up there were a lot of people in the job market, but they were quickly snatched up,” says Stamos. “Now we are in the mode of good old-fashioned poaching talent from other companies.”

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.