Not sure about your last paragraph, Frank. Managers can cross discipline lines, Engineers rarely do in comparison. I know managers who moved from electronic firms to pharmaceuticals, with no problems. The skills required/involved are relatively much more generic in management.
In theory, that's partly why managers' salaries are higher. The risk for them is higher if they lose their jobs. That said, in practice, managers use their jobs to look for the next opportunity. They build networks and overarching knowledge that Engineers cannot easily get. Even if/when they lose their jobs, they usually bounce back quickly.
I graduated from undergraduate school during tough times for engineers as well. So, after a short military tour, I too enrolled in graduate school. By the time that was over, the economy had picked up again, and I had no trouble finding my first job. Grad school helps too! If you can swing it, especially if you're young, get more education when the job market is bad. That's my suggestion.
And Frank makes an excellent point. Engineers that go into management have a harder time going back to real engineering work. The reason is, they fall behind. I see this happening all the time. It's like they taught us in engineering school.
You're in school primarily to learn how to learn. What you learned in school becomes hopelessly obsolete in very few years. In my experience, and it hardly matters what the manager did before management, managers get out of the real continuous learning loop, and soon develop the mindset that they cannot understand the details of what they are managing.
How often do you notice that managers learn most of what they know exclusively by attending meetings? Can't be good.
I was laid off in Feb 2009.I had a "dream job" in a telecom company before I had graduated. The lay off led me to take a masters degree in electrical engineering. I am working in a young dynamic research company in Netherlands, developing sensors.
I could not had asked for more.
You only fail in life when you accept it as a failure.
I lost a job in late 2001 and wasn't back to full-time employment for four years. During that time though, I did some consulting work and tried a couple of times to start businesses. I did end up back working for someone else in 2005, but the time I spend trying to design, build and sell small robot brains kept my mind fresh and my skill set growing.
Even if I didn't end up with a successful business of my own, the benefits of pushing myself to keep my brain going were very worthwhile.
I can't agree you more on the observation on the managers conveted from engineers. Most of them are the first line managers and in many cases got lost in their managerial roles. Their roles can be the best valued ones, however, if they "manage" themselves better by catching up the cutting-ege technology.
My observation is that those who take leadership and coach their subordinates rarely have difficulty to find another job since they always confident to get things done.
The key is to keep your skills current. Engage with open source projects or experiment with a DIY-drone or whatever to keep the blade sharp.
If you find yourself in management then it is far too easy to get disconnected from real-world changes. Keep current.
The absolute worst thing you can do is relax into a job and let that define your career.
There are many ways to keep your skills current, but the need and desire to do so presumes that in your last job and the next job you hope to get, you are actually doing engineering work.
Many engineers end up in management, which is all fine and good, except that after awhile many of them are too far gone to ever go back to the trenches and do real engineering work.
Some people believe that engineers are a dime a dozen these days. If that's true, then managers must be a nickel a dozen. No disrespect meant to managers, it's simply supply & demand. Relatively speaking, the ratio of unemployed managers to management job openings seems much larger than the ratio of unemployed engineers to engineering job openings. I don't have hard data to support that, it's just my observation of people I know who have been laid of over the last 3 years.
When I got into the electronics industry in the 1970's the rule of thumb was that you had about 20 years before your skills were overcome by events. I therefore looked into ways to extend my career and make proactive decisions rather than be overtaken by events.
The best advice I can give engineers today is to understand that only they can manage their careers. Each decision has consequences that you have to consider. One friend of mine just wanted to work in a lab and build circuits, so he made decisions where he got to do that type of work. Granted, he did not make as much money as some of the younger engineers, but he did what he enjoyed. In the end, that's all that counts.