Electronic Design

Where Are All The Jobs?

Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke caused a bit of a stir last month when he said that from a “technical perspective,” the recession is “very likely” over at this point. From a less technical perspective, he added that it could be months before unemployment rates dropped significantly.

In fact, the Consumer Electronics Association’s U.S. Economic Forecast is projecting the unemployment rate for the country at 9.9% in 2010 and expects it to improve to only 9.2% in 2011. That’s just about where it is now for much of the country, though 14 states are reporting an unemployment rate of more than 10%.

The unemployment rate for U.S. EEs hit a record high in the second quarter, but has eased somewhat in the third period, according to data very recently released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The jobless rate for EEs dropped from 8.6% in the second quarter to 7.3% in the third. Quarter to quarter, the EE workforce grew by 26,000. The unemployment rate for computer professionals went from 5.4% to 3.6%. Software engineers showed a slight decline (4.7% versus 5.0%), while computer scientists and systems analysts experienced an increase (7.3% versus 6.4%).

“These mixed data suggest that the worst may be passing, but we are still a long way from the levels of engineering unemployment we would expect to see in a strong economy,” says IEEE-USA president Gordon Day.

“We are also encouraged that announcements of layoffs in the high-tech sector appear to have subsided, after peaking early in the year. A clear turnaround in engineering unemployment would be a very positive sign for the general workforce, since engineers create new jobs in many categories,” Day says.

ANY GOOD NEWS?
Good news is hard to come by. The global staffing firm Robert Half International and CareerBuilder, the online career site, recently released a joint study suggesting that more than half of the employers it polled plan to hire full-time employees over the next 12 months and that technology was one of the few areas in which they expect to add jobs.

But the 2009 Electronic Design Salary Survey reveals a bleak picture with employment declining for working engineers, while the salaries of those still working have decreased. And it’s pretty much downhill from there.

“Demand for EEs is down across the board,” says Michael J. Buryk, business development manager for recruitment advertising for IEEE Media. “The IEEE Job Site is down over 50% since last year, as are most other online recruitment sites that I know about.”

Silicon Valley has been particularly hard hit since 2001. According to BLS data, the six-county region lost more than 85,000 high-tech jobs between 2001 and 2008, a decline of 17%. Some industry sectors have continued to do well in the region, including aerospace and certain categories of scientific research, both of which recorded strong job growth (see the figure).

However, the more traditional sectors suffered over the study period. The top four high-tech industries in terms of employment in Silicon Valley in 2001—computer system design, semiconductor manufacturing, Internet/telecommunications, and computer equipment manufacturing—lost more than 70,000 jobs by 2008.

Although the six counties (Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa) are identified as part of the Silicon Valley high-tech corridor, more than half of all hightech jobs were located in Santa Clara County.

All high-tech sectors were well represented in the BLS data, with employment ranging from 99,224 jobs in the computer system design sector down to 11,583 jobs in communications manufacturing in 2008. Yet employment in two of these sectors, computer equipment and semiconductor manufacturing, increased nationally during the same period.

Of the Top 25 Route 128 employers listed by Boston.com, a Boston-based news service, only three are in electronics. These three companies recently listed a total of only 64 openings, which may not include positions for technical professionals. Gary Wright of Wright Associates, a recruitment service that covers Greater New England, says engineers are still in demand in defense-related positions in his area, especially if you have a security clearance.

“There are also openings for high-level software talent, mostly by financial services and investment management companies,” says Wright. “People who have strong, current technical skills are still in demand. Companies that are hiring are looking for people with specific skill sets.”

Employment in Oregon’s computer and electronic industry is down by 6000 workers from 2007 to 34,600, according to the state labor department. To try to pick up the slack, Oregon, with the fourth highest unemployment rate in the country, has been working hard to lure “green,” or clean-tech, companies to the state, mostly in the form of tax credits.

ONLINE JOBS ACTIVITY
Dice.com, an industry-focused online job site, advertised about 1230 EE positions on just about any given day in August—a 44% decline year over year. ClearanceJobs.com, a Web site run by Dice.com for technical professionals with federal security clearances, listed about 385 EE positions in August.

In June, Gartner Inc. said that almost all sectors of the electronic equipment market were still declining. But Klaus Rinnen, managing vice president of Gartner’s semiconductor manufacturing group, says Gartner expects the electronics equipment market to begin a recovery in the fourth quarter of 2009, enabling the electronics industry to enter into a sustained recovery in the second half of 2010 with a reacceleration in sales in 2011.

While PCs and mobile phones are likely to lead the charge to recovery, Rinnen says Gartner does not expect semiconductor sales to regain the 2007 peak sales levels during the current fiveyear forecast period, ending in 2013. For the industry as a whole, Gartner says sustainable recovery will take longer as higherpriced and highly consumer-dependent segments are delayed.

WHERE’S THE STIMULUS?
Where’s the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the Stimulus Bill, when we need it? For the electronics industry, you may have to dig deep to find any help, with one notable exception: broadband.

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) say they have received almost 2200 applications requesting nearly $28 billion in funding for proposed broadband projects reaching all 50 U.S. states.

The first round of funding for broadband applications is expected to expand broadband access and adoption and help create jobs building Internet infrastructure, but with only $4 billion available through loans, grants, and loan/grant combinations, that’s not nearly enough to cover requests for project proposals.

“Applicants have requested nearly seven times the amount of funding available,” notes Lawrence E. Strickling, NTIA’s administrator and assistant secretary for communications and information. “We will move quickly but carefully to fund the best projects to bring broadband and jobs to more Americans.”

More than 260 of the applications were filed solely with NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, requesting more than $4.5 billion in grants to fund broadband infrastructure projects in unserved and underserved areas.

The ARRA is expected to have an enormous impact on the wireless community for upgrades and new deployments over the next few years. That includes Wi-Fi and wireless broadband vendors who see huge opportunities for the development of healthcare networks and homeland security and border protection applications. (Parks Associates forecasts that the U.S. market for wireless home-based healthcare applications and services will grow at a five-year cumulative annual growth rate of more than 180% and become a $4.4 billion industry by 2013.)

Verizon Business has already formed Verizon Connected Health Care Solutions to focus on existing and new network functions that can serve the healthcare industry. Cable companies are hyping their high-bandwidth capabilities to provide voice, data, and video solutions directly into homes. Another area that is gaining as security issues grow among government agencies at all levels is biometrics.

“Heightened emphasis on R&D to roll out new products to meet the industry’s current and future requirements will establish biometric technologies as an integral component of national security and defense strategies in the near future,” says Neelima Sager, a research analyst with Frost & Sullivan. Sager says market participants are investing heavily in the development of novel solutions.

Whatever happened to nanotechologies? The National Science Foundation estimates that the world will require 2 million trained nanotechnologists by 2015. Currently, the NSF says there are only 20,000 nano specialists worldwide, making the need for career training immediate.

GO BACK TO SCHOOL?
With more competition for jobs and more people entering the workforce, many engineers have chosen to go back to school. Universities seem to have anticipated this and have done their homework, narrowing the focus of their curricula to meet the needs of more highly specialized markets.

In fact, CareerBuilder says 71% of workers who were laid off from full-time jobs and have not found new positions reported in a survey that they are looking beyond their areas of expertise and considering new areas of employment.

More than 350 universities across the country now offer courses or degrees in some aspect of homeland security, according to the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security. Several universities are involved in homeland security research projects. Some schools, such as Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, receive funding from the Pentagon to help develop underwater sensors and technology to interpret images sent by terrorists over the Internet.

If nanotechnology is the direction you want to go, check out NanoProfessor, a new program focused on nanoscience recently launched at Dakota County Technical College in Minnesota.

The University of Michigan’s School of Information has launched the nation’s first master’s degree program in social computing. The program is one of nine the school now offers to prepare students for careers in some long established, but also newly emerging, specialized fields, including human-computer interaction for professionals who design and develop technologies that fit the organization and work practices.

There’s also plenty of hype about “green” jobs, but those often require training. Several schools are responding to this opportunity, though.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and School of Arts and Sciences have developed a new program that enables students to earn a dual MBA/ master of environmental studies degree in three years or less. Montclair State University in New Jersey recently awarded its first PhD in environmental management as part of one of the few doctoral programs in environmental management in the U.S.

The University of Delaware is expanding its existing programs and designing new ones to meet the needs of engineering professionals, particularly in cases where it perceives that a bachelor’s degree is no longer enough. One of Delaware’s new programs is a master of science degree in software engineering, an effort initiated in 2007 at the request of the U.S. Army’s Software Engineering Center, with input from industry partners such as CSC, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, BAE Systems, and the U.S. Navy.

Specialization tracks proposed at this point include networks, information science/ artificial intelligence, scientific and high-performance computing, systems and architecture, systems engineering, computer science, and communications and signal processing. Also in the planning stages at Delaware, says Kathleen C. Werrell, assistant dean of engineering outreach, are graduate certificate and degree programs in systems engineering and engineering management.

As for current university graduates, CareerBuilder says the class of 2009 will face the most competitive job market in years, as companies continue to be cautious in their hiring. And if you find a job, you can also expect the economic downturn to have an impact on your entry-level salary.

Interestingly, one of the best opportunities, particularly for entry-level technical positions, might be government agencies. Want to work for the CIA? Your contact at California State University-Long Beach College of Engineering to apply for a high-tech job with the nation’s most publicized secret agency is “Sharon C.” (The CIA has a western regional office with an 800 number.)

You need at least a 3.0 GPA, and you have to be willing to relocate to the Northern Virginia/Washington, D.C., metro area if you qualify. What’s the job? Hard to tell. The recruitment ad at Cal State just says, “Technology so advanced, it’s classified.” The URL is www.csulb.edu/colleges/coe/ee/views/jobs/2009/cia.shtml.

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