You know the drum-beat of bad news about the economy is over the top when it starts showing up in the monologue of late-night TV host Jay Leno. Recently he poked fun at members of Congress for voting themselves a $4,700 pay raise with unemployment nearing record highs and the economy in collapse. “But in their defense,” he quipped, “members of Congress… have expenses the rest of us don’t have — defense lawyers, bartenders, mistresses — these things all cost money.”

Of course, a pay raise is the farthest thing from the mind of most workers today. That may be doubly so for engineers. The daily hand-wringing about manufacturing layoffs in the press and on TV has made a lot of people nervous about their prospects for employment. It would be easy to get the idea from the somber tone of business commentators that factories everywhere are on the verge of turning out the lights for the last time.

The truth, though, is quite different. Business is down, but engineers are still being hired.

That’s the impression conveyed by engineering recruiters and hiring managers to whom we’ve talked recently. “The third and fourth quarters were slow for mechanical and electrical engineers, but the first quarter looks promising,” says Allen Vohden of Vohden Associates LLC, an engineering recruiter in Connecticut. “A lot of new jobs came in just in the first week of the year. And engineers haven’t seen any salary compression — salaries aren’t growing but they aren’t shrinking, either,” he says.

Medical-device makers are still hiring, Vohden says, as are pharma and biopharma companies, and some petrochemical suppliers. He calls the food industry “flat” and admits the auto industry is “way down,” as is the demand for engineers in the Midwest. And broadly speaking, openings are down about 20% compared with conditions in the middle of last year, he says. “The south, southwest, and mid-Atlantic states seem to be doing more hiring right now. But companies are being careful. There’s a longer period between when they look at candidates and when they make an offer.”

A slightly different view comes from Oxford Global Resources, a Massachusetts firm that specializes in finding “hired guns” — supercompetent engineers who serve as consultants for relatively short-term assignments. “The demand for validation and software engineers is holding up fairly strongly,” says Oxford Vice President of Strategy and Marketing Scott Beyer. “It really depends on the engineering specialty,” he says. “Telecom is also holding up. California is one of the stronger markets. On the other hand, the outlook for mechanical and hardware engineers is down from previous quarters. If you average everything out, I might call the demand in the next quarter flat to down a bit. But it is not at crisis levels,” he says.

Finally, it is interesting to get the perspectives of firms that are boosting their engineering staffs in these tough economic times. That’s the case at SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif., research firm. SRI expects to hire about 50 engineers working in software design, system integration, testing, biofuels, and sustainable materials. “We’ve had great success finding entry-level researchers and general engineering new grads,” says an SRI spokesperson. As far as attracting talent, “The diversity of work and the… SRI environment are a big positive.”

We might be tempted to add, the prospect of a steady paycheck doesn’t hurt either.

— Leland Teschler, Editor