Electronic Design

Whatever Happened To Electronic Technicians?

Like some of you, I came to engineering via work as a technician. I started out with an associate’s degree and then worked for a bunch of years as an engineering tech doing breadboarding and testing, building prototypes, making cables, writing wiring lists, ordering components, and troubleshooting everything. It was a good background. In many ways, I wish all engineers could have such a hands-on, less theoretical experience before designing anything. I finally got a bachelor’s degree at night and quickly moved into engineering jobs.

As an engineer, I always had one or two techs working for me. They did most of the non-technical grunt work, which used to include things like making cables and doing the printed-circuit board (PCB) layout. Layouts are no longer possible with techs, as these days it takes an engineer to handle the smaller sizes and the critical technical complexities involved with high bit rates and/or RF. Yet techs really did help in building prototypes and transferring products to manufacturing.

But what happened to all the engineering techs anyway? I don’t see many of them. As I talk with companies and visit labs, I see few techs—if any. Am I missing something? After thinking about it, here is my conclusion.

Three major developments over the years have probably contributed to the dearth of techs. First, economics. Get rid of the techs to save money and make the engineer do the work. Second, semiconductor technology. With more circuitry inside ICs, there is less need to design specific circuits so there is much less need to breadboard and test them. Third, we got computer aided design. The engineer does not need as much bench work as before since most circuits are simulated first.

And, there are more reference designs (see "Reference Designs Play A Dual Role"). While prototypes are still built, engineers often build the prototypes themselves and carry out the testing (see "Prototype Your Way To Success"). Things are so much more complex today than before, the engineer has to do the prototyping and testing since the tech may not be as knowledgeable or capable. Another factor may be that so much of design today is software for the embedded processors inside everything. This requires engineers or techs who can code and do their own debugging.

Engineering techs have not gone away entirely, but there are fewer of them. The techs who are left are usually older with lots of experience. Many techs are really engineers without the title, from what I have seen. The few I have seen recently are mostly in research-related jobs.

As for electronic techs in general, many are still out there in industry, but not so much in engineering. Most seem to work for non-electronic companies. They work for companies that use electronics like factories, refineries, or transportation. They install equipment, operate it, service it, troubleshoot and repair it, test it, and so on. And I do see techs in manufacturing for testing and measuring final products, or working on the manufacturing equipment.

A key fact about techs today is that they all appear to work at the system level rather than at the component level, as they did the past. Again, thanks to larger-scale ICs, there isn’t much to do in the way of repair. It appears that most consumer electronics equipment isn’t repaired, except for higher-end HDTV sets and other really expensive gear. Today, defective products are thrown out, and consumers buy new ones. It’s cheaper and faster, and there’s something to be said for having the latest product as well.

Community colleges, where most techs are educated, are still teaching an engineering tech curriculum (see "Spelling Success With A Good University Program"). Since tech work doesn’t appear to offer many employment opportunities, I can’t help but feel badly for the graduates who go out and expect to get an engineering tech job. They are still trained to analyze and design, but techs today do not do much of that anymore.

I teach with the adjunct faculty for a local community college every now and then and have made the administration aware of the status of techs today (see "What's Wrong With Engineering Education?"). But like their colleagues in other areas of academia, the engineering administrators are reluctant to change anything. That is bad news for the industry, as companies get techs trained in the history of electronics instead of the latest products and techniques. It seems that’s business as usual in education.

So what do you say? Does your company employ engineering techs? Or any techs? What do they do? What are their educational requirements? Let me know and I will summarize your feedback and find a way to get it to the colleges.

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