Today's sluggish economy and poor employment picture seem to have put the brakes on one of the more time-honored elements of engineering life—continuing education. Companies struggling for profitability are reluctant to spend much on training. "The economy certainly has had an impact on continuing education,"
says Jeff Lange, president of Besser Associates, a private training organization specializing mostly in RF-specific and wireless-based courses. "Companies have cut back sharply on their training budgets, which has reduced spending on short courses."
Still, engineers want the training. "Some are actually paying for it out of their own pockets," says Lange. "Many unemployed engineers have been taking us up on our discount program."
Former IEEE-USA president LeEarl Bryant lamented the industry's lack of support for training and what she calls "lifelong learning" at a November conference on the U.S. science and engineering workforce. "To remain employed," she says, "engineers are required to keep pace with changing technologies and learn new skills, but increasingly, employers are not providing time off or financial support for this training. Engineers who are unemployed or under-employed are also required to keep pace with changes in technology with little or no financial means for doing so."
In fact, layoffs have created sort of a Catch 22 in the industry as far as continuing education is concerned. You can't take a course if you're unemployed, unless you pay for it yourself, and your company probably won't send you to a class if it has laid off engineers, because others must pick up the slack.
In-house training isn't new, but it has become more popular at cost-conscious companies. It's simply easier, and obviously less expensive, to bring in a professional trainer and put 10 or more engineers in a room for a day or so than to send several engineers to an off-site course.
Some companies, like Anadigics, invite a "business partner," such as a test and measurement vendor, to make a half-day presentation to its engineers at least once a month, often focusing on some new or evolving development in their specialized area. This also works well for vendors that use the session as a sort of focus group, taking careful note of the engineers' questions and comments. For example, Agilent Technologies and Cadence Design Systems co-sponsor a one-day traveling road show in at least 14 cities, inviting engineers from regional companies to bring themselves up to date on current best practices for improving RFIC design productivity.
Others, such as Sarnoff Corp., prefer a homegrown approach to training their technical staffs, especially those with only a few years of on-the-job experience. In other words, these companies don't often send employees out for training, which might subject them to someone else's "take" on ideas about current or new developments. Rather, these employees learn the culture and ideas of the company as part of its training and mentoring program.
What about the courses still out there? What's hot today? Of course, anything wireless. But in general, Lange says classes that deal with foundation material are always in demand. Core courses on RF circuits and systems are still popular. "In related areas, the interest in mixed signal and high-speed systems has certainly picked up," he adds.