Wall Street is crashing, credit is shrinking, the economy is sinking, and people everywhere are worried about keeping their jobs. On the other hand, electronic designers with unique and in-demand skills are enjoying the luxury of feeling reasonably secure about their current employment status. Many are even planning for a better and brighter future. During these difficult times, that’s a feeling all designers would like to experience.
While nobody knows what the future may bring, all engineers can boost their employability by focusing on in-demand skills in areas that tend to be overlooked. “This is the time to get your skill set ready and become well-rounded,” says Eric Hazen, director of the Electronics Design Facility at Boston University. “Having multiple skills—an ability to be competent in several different areas—is always going to be viewed as a career attribute.”
But which specific skills are likely to enhance a designer’s skill set and provide employment insurance in a difficult market? Much depends on an individual’s current job focus, interests, aptitude, and willingness to investigate new areas. But having any of the following 10 design skills wouldn’t be a bad hedge against future insecurity.
Skill #1: Analog Design
The world may be going digital, but that doesn’t mean analog technology is about to disappear. In fact, analog is still widely used in markets ranging from automotive technologies to communications systems to consumer appliances. Analog circuits tend to be much larger than digital circuits, making them generally harder to design. This means that employers that focus on analog technology often continue searching for bright, engaged, and talented designers even when digital-oriented jobs are tough to find.
With schools grinding out thousands of digitally savvy grads every year, and veteran analog designers heading into retirement, analog design is rapidly becoming something of a lost art, Hazen says. “Within hardware, digital design is emphasized since it is more glamorous and has more job openings,” he notes.
While analog design is far from a cutting-edge talent, it’s a useful skill that can help keep designers gainfully employed while their digitally focused colleagues are heading for the unemployment office.
Skill #2: Radiation Hardening
This relatively obscure discipline is receiving greater attention as the government and military increasingly demand circuits that can withstand cosmic rays, solar radiation, atomic blast radiation, and related perils, both in space and on earth.
“More commercial vendors are starting to care about radiation effects as well,” says William Timothy Holman, an electrical engineering research associate professor at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University and the Vanderbilt Radiation Effects Program. That’s because as circuits continue to shrink, it becomes easier for ordinary background radiation to introduce errors into digital circuits or even damage chips.
“We’re finding that graduates from our program are in greater and greater demand,” Holman says.
Skill #3: Programming
Why would a hardware design engineer need to acquire programming skills? Because it’s becoming increasingly necessary. Hazen observes that “almost everything has a software component now. It’s either designed to be attached to or read-out by a computer.”
Even basic programming ability can be a big career booster, Hazen says. “If the engineer has no facility with software, then he or she has to bring in someone else to write even simple software to test out the hardware that they’ve designed,” he notes. This represents a potential added expense for the employer.
Exactly which programming skills should a design engineer attempt to acquire? Hazen suggests that designers begin by acquiring some general knowledge in C or C++ and then branch out into software tools that are relevant to their current work.
Knowledge of mainstream operating systems can also be useful for any designer working with computer-related technologies, such as PC peripherals, servers, and network devices, says Rich Graber, senior vice president of engineering at NEI, a network systems vendor. “I would definitely recommend that hardware guys take some Linux courses,” he says. “Understanding how Windows works is helpful, too.”
Skill #4: RF
Radios are popping up everywhere, even inside devices that usually aren’t associated with the technology, such as picture frames and vending machines. The Wi-Fi explosion, coupled with Bluetooth, radio-frequency identification (RFID), and other radio-enabled technologies, is opening more doors for engineers with RF knowledge.
A good understanding of the fundamentals of RF circuit design, particularly in cellular technologies, such as GSM and CDMA, and wireless systems, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and WiMAX, is becoming increasingly important for designers working in a variety of different fields. “Engineers in multiple business and consumer areas, not just telecommunications and networking, are encountering RF issues,” Hazen says. “RF design is a skill that’s likely to continue growing in importance.” Skill #5: Optics
There’s a bright future for light-based technologies. In fact, the demand for engineers with a background in electro-optics and photonics has grown rapidly over the past several years, a result of the increased use of optics in a variety of fields, particularly networking and communications. As a result, there’s a growing need for engineers who can design and work with technologies including optoelectronic circuits, signal sources, detectors, and transmission media.
“With a growing need for speed in circuits and networks, optics-related design issues are likely to arise in even more areas over the next several years,” Hazen says. Optics skills can also help developers prepare for optical computing and other emerging photonics-based technologies.
Skill #6: Digital Signal Processing
Electronic communication and multimedia are driving the technology world. More often than not, a digital signal processor (DSP) is driving the communication and multimedia systems.
DSP chips can be found in an array of devices, including mobile phones, two-way radios, digital cameras, TVs, and PC audio systems. Manufacturers rely on designers to use DSPs to meet several needs, including the removal of electrical “noise,” improving signal quality and signal compression and decompression.
“DSP started in certain, very narrow areas, and now it’s moved to basically everything,” says Graber. “There will be an ongoing need to develop new types of DSPs, as well as to innovatively apply them to circuit designs.”
Graber believes that designers can benefit from an understanding of DSP design and architecture, as well as knowledge in functional and structural RTL design, logic partitioning, logic simulation, and debug environments. Also helpful is an ability to be proficient in high-speed and/or low-power logic design as well as an ability to work with logic synthesis, static timing analysis, and high-speed processor implementation concepts.
Skill #7: Emerging Power Technologies
The ability to work with cutting-edge power technologies such as solar energy, fuel cells, and next-generation batteries can be a big career advantage in a world that’s becoming increasingly “green.”
Designers who can help their employer create a mobile device that runs longer on a charge without increasing the device’s weight or form factor, or help a fixed product operate more efficiently, are literally worth their weight in gold—perhaps even more.
“Saving energy is an important part of device design in virtually all areas,” says Shawn Thompson, director of engineering at Pivot International, a product design and manufacturing services company. “Being aware of the latest power technologies, and knowing when, how, and where to use them, is an increasingly crucial ability.”
Skill #8: Quantum Physics
Although quantum computers are still several years away, at best, quantum principles are gradually beginning to gain commercial potential in fields such as network security and optoelectronics.
Advanced quantum research skills require a formidable math and physics background, Holman notes. Yet designers who have the knowledge and ability to apply quantum technologies developed by theoretical researchers to real-world problems will have a distinct advantage over their engineer counterparts, particularly in jobs that focus on data storage and transmission, Holman says.
Plus, in the event quantum computers finally do arrive, designers already familiar with basic quantum principles will be well prepared to begin incorporating the technology into real-world systems.
Skill #9: Nanotechnology
Currently, much of the work in nanotechnology involves basic research and development sponsored and supported by corporate, university, and government collaborations. Yet it is another promising field that’s beginning to move out of the laboratory and into real-world applications.
Nanotechnology is finding practical, commercial use in such diverse fields as healthcare, information technology, manufacturing, and defense. The National Science Foundation (NSF) projects that within the next decade, the worldwide need for nanotechnology workers will rise from the current 20,000 to 2 million.
Given the growing interest in nanotechnology, it’s hard to believe that acquiring knowledge in this area would be a waste of time. “This is a field one needs to pay close attention to, given its potential importance,” Hazen says. Although real-world nanotechnology jobs are still scarce, nanotechnology expertise in your back pocket could eventually prove to be quite handy in the years ahead.
Skill #10: Mechanical Design
As businesses develop intelligent robots, vehicles, home and business appliances, and various other “smart” machines, electronic technologies are increasingly bumping up against mechanical systems. While electronic and mechanical engineering remain unique and distinct fields, electronic designers that possess mechanical expertise and insight, even at a relatively minimal level, can help developers surmount the obstacles that inevitably arise when electronics meets machinery.
“If one believes in a ‘robotized’ future, some mechanical insight is a good thing to have,” Thompson says.
Bonus Skill: Soldering
Don’t laugh. Even in this era of computer-assisted design, soldering remains a highly useful talent. Kids used to learn how to solder while working on Heathkits and homebrew electronics projects, but the skill is rapidly becoming a lost art. That’s a shame, Hazen says, because a design engineer should be able to work on real-world prototypes without having to rely on a technician. “These days, we literally have to teach students which end of the soldering iron is hot,” he notes.
Most engineer job seekers probably won’t want to include “master solderer” on their resumes. But the skill can help an average designer work more productively, efficiently, and innovatively, which are attributes all employers value.
Acquiring Knowledge—Without Breaking the Bank
The best things in life may be free, but electronics education certainly isn’t one of them. In fact, university and college tuition rates keep setting new record highs, which makes acquiring new technical abilities like these during hard times even more difficult.
Most designers seeking to acquire fresh skills do so through employer-supplied training or by taking courses at local colleges, also often at the employers’ expense. On the other hand, designers who can’t get their bosses to underwrite study in a particular area can take advantage of the numerous free or low-cost learning opportunities.
“A big opportunity many people overlook is training by CAD tool vendors,” says Hazen. “You can learn a lot about new technology from them through formal training, which you’ll have to pay for, or seminars and mini-courses, which are often free.” Hazen notes that while the programs offered by CAD vendors are geared toward selling products, “they have to use real-world project examples, and you can learn a great deal this way.”
Textbooks, self-study guides, and Web sites can also provide a great deal of knowledge on just about any design topic at little or no cost. “A Google search reflecting your area of interest will undoubtedly turn up a great deal of material,” says Graber. Professional societies in fields such as nanotechnology, quantum physics, and optics are yet another source of quality training courses and study materials.
Self-study through free materials provided by component vendors is still another option open to designers looking to broaden their skill set. “There will be a marketing slant, but usually good solid technical content as well,” Hazen says. “It certainly doesn’t hurt to take a look.”