Regarding Rich's comment on new engineers being idealistic and about the profession not paying well, I have a slightly different opinion. When I was in college (1983-1988), I figured that getting an EE degree was the quickest, surest, way to make the most money. Not that that was the only reason I chose this path, the proof being that several decades later I'm still doing it and have not gone to the Dark Side (management, marketing, or (the horror!) sales). But I did reason that there were slower ways (for example, an MD or PhD degree), or riskier ways (start a business (legit or selling drugs!)), or taking a sure but very low paying job (grocery store, McDonald's, digging ditches, etc.). It's always amazing to me that the high paying glamor jobs out there like acting, defense attorney, CEO have such variation in salary. I mean, for every millionaire there are probably hundreds of people just scraping by. We engineers pretty much don't have that problem, not in the US anyway. Our salary range is pretty small.
"the reward is minimal".
A very real reward of designing and optimizing products and systems is observing the impact they have on society and getting that feeling one experiences at the moment of idea conception and again at successful implementation when the idea has just been realized.
I have always said: "Engineering is a disease not a profession" (not in a bad way). Students are drawn to engineering because they want to create and build things. The current situation with students today is one of both what can I do to make enough money to have the things I want AND what do I like doing. All too often, bright potential engineers are lured from design into business because "that's where all the money is". Until our culture pays more attention to lasting things of value instead of last nights sporting event we will continue to encourage young people (by our focus and attentions) to pursue sports from elementary school through college. This concentration on entertainment and relaxation perhaps dissuades students from engineering degrees as the amount of effort is significant and the rewards are minimal (unless you really have the bug to engineer).
Hence the trend to major new enterprises, headed by kids, in software rather than hardware (Google, Facebook, Groupon, etc). You don't need major capital investment to start a software/Web/social networking company. Personal agendas aside, young innovative thinkers will follow the path of least resistance
When I was in the research institute, a fellow told me that science and engineering are hand-in-hand. This fellow was doing astronomy for your information. He said physics can go so far w/o any proof. Then, engineering will take the knowledge and start building various products. A few of these products will help further scientific investigation. In another words, there are a cycle between them. It is somewhat true.
Looking at the shifting of industry in UK and in US, you can draw a scenario. When a country is well developed and economic is thriving, there will be more talents jumping into management and finance than to science and engineering. After all, who want to keep their hand dirty for their whole life?
However, if we look into longer period of time in developed countries, you will find a supply and demand graph in every segment. As the supply of engineers goes down, the salary goes up.
At the end of the day, it is a product which transform a natural resource into dollars. New products will always be made. New market will always be created. Engineers will always exist one way or the other. America may be suffering from lacking of new blood joining the work force. Who knows what's going to happen 50 years from now?