Electronic Design

Job Market Heats Up in Tech Specialty Fields

Is the job outlook going to get any rosier over the next several months? The signs don't seem to point in that direction, except for specialty technology jobs. The economy may be edging up, but hiring will see only slight improvement by year's end, and some key job-related issues still hang over the industry.

The H-1B visa cap debate over how many foreign engineers to allow into the U.S. continues to loom. The "guest" engineer job quota was expected to drop from 195,000 to 65,000 on October 1. In fact, the use of these visas has been declining since 2001, possibly because more design and manufacturing work is moving offshore.

The Communications Workers of America, which has long been interested in H-1B issues, set up a Web site, www.techsunite.org, to address these and other employment issues. Also, at the CWA's urging, congressional leaders ordered a Government Accounting Office study on the extent and consequences of U.S. technical jobs moving offshore and, like the IEEE-USA, is seeking legislation to plug loopholes in programs that harm U.S. engineers.

As for actual jobs, Jeffrey Joerres, CEO of the staffing company Manpower Inc., says, "There will still be a lot of angst and difficulty in finding a job. The market is still tight and companies are still cautious." But Joerres indicates that some companies are beginning to hire again. One healthy indication of a turnaround is that the number of jobs posted by companies for engineering positions at CareerBuilder.com grew 65% between August 2002 and August 2003, and those numbers remained rather steady in recent weeks. The trick may be to pick your spots.

Dice.com, for example, an online job site specializing in high-tech positions, created a "high-demand" job list. Last month, it featured positions in aerospace, avionics, defense, software engineering, technical support, network specialists, and test engineering. All of these positions require a security clearance. Dice.com also says that there is a "high demand" for technical sales people, mostly reps, all over the country.

EPCglobal, which specializes in recruiting and staffing engineering and construction industry professionals, produced its own list of the fastest growing tech positions. These include computer software engineers for applications and support software, computer software-support specialists, network and computer systems administrators, and network systems and data-communications analysts.

According to the firm, more computer engineers will be necessary to implement technical innovations, while some openings will result from the need to replace those who move into management positions or into other fields. However, EPCglobal notes that an increasing number of computer engineers are employed as temporary or contract workers and that this trend is likely to continue. (EPCglobal additionally reports that more than 10,000 engineers have now applied for positions in Iraq.)

Another good but tentative sign comes out of a new report from Criterion Economics L.L.C. Based on its survey, Criterion says that as many as 1.2 million new jobs could result over the next decade from the widespread adoption of existing and advanced broadband technologies. The report concludes that more than 250,000 telecommunications service and equipment sector jobs lost between 2000 and 2003 could be restored within five years. Also, the study estimates that the capital expenditures by broadband providers would more than restore the 89,100 jobs lost in the communications sector from December 2000 to January 2003 if residential adoption follows its fast-growth projections.

Indeed, it may be easier to project job opportunities over the longer term than the near term. That's probably why most industry trade groups, including the AeA (the American Electronics Association), don't make projections on jobs in the industry. "Predicting where the technology industry is going in the next six months will be very challenging," says Matthew Kazmierczak, the organization's senior manager for research.

Headhunters and HR executives are already conjuring up what will happen when the employment picture eventually improves. For headhunters, it could be a dream. However, HR executives anticipate a nightmare, as gainfully employed engineers and engineering managers become less fearful about an unstable job market and begin to shop around, ultimately becoming the target of recruiters in a recovering economy.

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