You name it, and electronics has changed it in some capacity—personal and business communications, healthcare, energy conservation, entertainment, education, photography, even voting. And there'll be no letup in its landscape-altering effect.
Coupled with its seeming omnipresence, though, are various issues that the industry must contend with: trade, environmental and intellectual property issues, the growth of China's electronics industry, India's expanding global role in information technology, and some seismic market-driven shifts in industry sectors such as telecommunications and consumer electronics.
The Yankee Group, an industry analysis company, forecasts industry-wide changes in heightened competition, much of it through globalization. But it also sees more demanding consumers, evolving technology and disruption, regulatory uncertainty, and a growing emphasis on innovation.
Management consultants at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu see a "quiet revolution" in how technology is changing the way we live. "A typical day in 2010 is unlikely to feel much different from today," says Paul Lee, director of research of the firm's Technology, Media & Telecommunications Industry Group.
"We will probably not be teleporting breakfast or using quantum computers, nor will we be watching holographic TV or traveling to work in flying cars," Lee notes. "A lucky few may likely be flying to the edge of space. But for the rest of us, change will probably be more subtle, with advances in technology, media, and telecommunications pervading ever more deeply into our daily lives."
What will your role be during all of this change? Let's start with the big picture. The Economic Strategy Institute has already warned that America faces a $55 billion and rising trade deficit in advanced technology products. Falling revenues are forcing many U.S. telecom and other technology companies to cut back on R&D spending. "As the United States has stumbled, the rest of the world has leapt ahead," Clyde Prestowitz, one of the authors of the study, says in the report.
How will this impact high-tech jobs? The long-term picture is mixed. Despite an 11% increase in graduate applications from international students from 2005 to 2006, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, the growth follows a two-year cumulative decline of 32%. Not surprisingly, the large gains have come from China and India. But the huge numbers of engineering and computer science graduates in China and India may be seriously misleading.
A National Academy report that China is producing 600,000 new engineers a year compared with only 70,000 in the U.S. has been all but shot down by a McKinsey Global Institute report that suggests that at least half of what China claims are engineering students are, by American standards, technicians. Furthermore, the accuracy of most of the data on China's output of engineering graduates is being questioned as it comes directly from provincial governments. It's unclear whether they're all using the same definition of "engineer."
A study by Duke University also casts doubt on the numbers of engineering graduates coming out of both China and India. Much of the results of the Duke study is based on the coursework of U.S.-trained engineers compared with those of "engineers" in China and India. The report suggests that engineers in those countries may have sub-baccalaureate degrees.
U.S. job numbers
According to the American Engineering Association (AEA), the nation's largest trade association with 2500 companies representing all segments of technology, the high-tech industry added some 61,000 net jobs for a total of 5.6 million in the United States in 2005.
"Tech industry employment only grew 1% last year compared to 2% for the U.S. private sector as a whole," says William T. Archey, president and CEO of the AEA. "To promote the creation of high-paying technology jobs for the future, we need to address the competitiveness issues facing our country today."
The picture becomes more complicated at the regional level. The AEA says that while California's tech industry overall lost 10,600 net jobs in 2004, this was down considerably from the 67,800 jobs lost in 2003. The tech industry in San Jose/Silicon Valley lost a net 10,500 jobs. Other high-tech centers in California gained jobs, but in much smaller numbers.
New Jersey has similar problems. A recent report by the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey found that the state was fast losing its telecom edge to locations like Texas and California. Today, Texas is second only to California in the number of telecom patents that developed there, while New Jersey ranked fifth—reversing the positions of 1996 when New Jersey was second and Texas was fifth.
New Jersey has lost 14% of its high-tech jobs since 2000, across a range of industry sectors. More technical talent will likely flee the state with the merger of Alcatel and Lucent Technologies, as well as the shutting down of Fort Monmouth, the home through at least three wars of the U.S. Army's Electronics & Communications Command.
One of the proposals in the Stevens report is to ask the state to create research clusters, mainly through grants and tax breaks to help smaller companies working with universities stay active in New Jersey. Stevens believes that $100 million a year in a new tax structure will help save high-tech industries in the state.
Nationally, even with fairly accurate projections of the economy, interest rates, capital, and R&D investments, the outlook for engineering employment is precarious. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) most recent update of its 10-year employment forecast places engineering and computer science specialties in eight of the top 30 occupations by growth rate.
Growth rates projected to 2014 by the BLS show the strongest demand for network systems and data-communications analysis, as well as computer software engineers.
"The professional IT workforce is expected to grow some 30% by 2014, adding a million more jobs," says George McClure, chairman of the IEEE-USA Communications Committee, following IEEE-USA analysis of the BLS data.
For a better comparison, annualized demand growth rates (compounded) were calculated by the BLS projections. Only the technical occupations with the highest growth rates are shown in the table, plus engineering specialties that are expected to grow more slowly than the labor force as a whole. Some occupations that require the same skills as engineering are included (actuaries, accounting, financial analysis). McClure says that projections of demand for 41,000 more personal financial advisors may open an alternate path for laid-off engineers.
Another much-in-demand opportunity for EEs and computer scientists, including those just out of school, is the very strong demand for technical professionals with security clearances. At least two technology-oriented recruiting firms, Dice Inc. and Techexpo Top Secret, have been holding job fairs around the country for tech professionals. Not surprisingly, the biggest recruiters are companies involved in defense/aerospace work and certain federal government agencies. The only requirement for entrance to the job fairs: you need a security clearance.
Almost anything wireless is another opportunity. Market research firm Gartner recently said that 64% of businesses intend to increase wireless local-area network (WLAN) deployment during the next 12 months. At least 44% of the respondents to a Gartner survey indicated the primary reason to deploy a WLAN was improving productivity with mobility. But security was considered to be among the top concerns in adopting WLANs by most of the respondents (95%), while 60% admitted they don't believe they have adequate security for wireless deployment.
Money is always an important factor. In such a competitive environment, San Jose/Silicon Valley not surprisingly pays the highest annual average wage of tech workers in the state at $126,700. Throughout California, average annual tech wages were significantly higher than the average private sector wage. The statewide tech wage was $90,600, or 106% higher than the private sector.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) also says electrical engineering majors in the class of 2005-2006 are holding their own among other engineering specialties. EEs were offered nearly $54,000 on average right out of school, which is a little better than mechanical engineering graduates, though slightly less than new chemical engineers.
The great R&D debate
One of the long-debated questions among companies and their engineers is how research and development should be funded. Technical societies and trade associations talk about the "research gap" and how it threatens U.S. global competitiveness, while some U.S. engineers question whether the federal government should support R&D at all and, if so, what type of research projects.
Slightly more than a third (34.1%) of the respondents to Electronic Design's 2006 Reader Profile Survey indicated their organizations receive government funding for R&D. But there was a difference of opinion on how this money should be spent, with many respondents challenging the whole idea of federal funding of R&D.
For the multiple-response question, "In what technology areas do you believe the government should be increasing its R&D investment?" most respondents (82.6%) selected alternative power as their top priority to which government should direct R&D funds.
"The country is in a state where only government intervention can turn innovation around," wrote Jim Taylor, manager of hardware support engineering at 3Com Corp. "It is disgraceful that we have not invested heavily in alternative power development. We are either entering the age of declining carbon-based energy reserves or the age of complete corporate control and privatization of government policies. Neither of these scenarios will bring peace and security to the world."
Alternative power was followed by nanotechnology (46.8%). Homeland security ran third with 36.9%, followed by broadband infrastructures and robotics with about 31% each. There were also several write-in votes for medical applications (several respondents specifically mentioned stem cell research) and aerospace.
"The space industry," suggested Bogdan Morariu, a director at Bitmetrix Technology DSP, a Canadian-based company that provides DSP consulting and calibration services for DSP applications. "Otherwise, we may be stuck on this planet forever."
Engineering education was another concern among Electronic Design's respondents, with calls for encouraging a greater investment in primary schooling. Meanwhile, more than half (56%) of the survey's respondents say their organization participates in university R&D projects.
Dump federal R&D support?
J.P. Miller, Distinguished Technologist at Hewlett-Packard, was among those who wanted to pretty much get rid of government R&D funding altogether: "Research should be done privately except in very narrowly defined defense sectors."
One of Miller's arguments for private research is that "it is more creative. It is solid science when you are competing to create goods and services rather than creating a bigger scare story to get more government funding," mentioning the environment as an example.
Dale Donchin, CAD director of Analog Devices, took a slightly harder line. "I believe the government, in general, knows very little about true R&D, but knows a lot about political opportunism," he says. "I'd have them fund groups like NASA, but not tell these groups how to invest the funds."
"We have two alternatives," added Bitmetrix's Morariu. "Either the government gives money away on programs that don't make sense, or the government reimburses all or part of the R&D efforts only if the program is found to be valuable."
"DARPA (the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) does by far the best job in R&D among government agencies," says Newt Ball, principal engineer at Energetix, an energy supplier. "We should encourage civilian agencies to copy their style. We should fund innovative concepts in engineering with openings for small organizations."
In fact, DARPA has sharply cut back its funding of university R&D in recent years, shifting its support to military contractors who could produce a faster payoff.
Chris Cuevas, a group leader at Jefferson Lab, called for long-term commitments to basic research labs. "Year-by-year funding doesn't create stability," he says. "A national focus and priorities should be established and then funds assigned for as long as 10 years."
Anthony Esposito, a senior design engineer at Respironics, which designs and manufactures medical products, had another idea to boost private R&D in the industry: "Bring back tax cuts for companies investing 20% or more in R&D." Charles Gu, a senior corporate applications engineer at Maxim Integrated Products, also favors tax benefits for key R&D that encourage applications development.
Another not so subtle industry trend is the increasing sophistication of wireless products. With the greater integration of music, video, broadcasting, and other new technologies for Internet and high-speed, high-volume communications comes the need for a larger pool of resources for their development.
To pull this off, more companies are forming joint ventures, partnerships, and other types of alliances, often with traditional competitors to speed up the development and introduction of new products. In recent months, several companies have signed working agreements they believe will create new synergies by combining their technical expertise.
While Intel and Lucent Technologies are talking about huge layoffs in the coming months, CEC Corp., Matsushita Electric, NEC Electronics, Panasonic Mobile Communications, and Texas Instruments are forming a joint venture to conduct global development, design, and technology licensing on a major scale. The new company, to be called Adcore-Tech Co., has been established in Japan with approximately 180 employees.
Motorola announced five new partnerships in one day recently, first reporting that it had acquired Broadbus Technologies, extending video delivery capabilities with new content management and distribution. It also formed a joint venture with Wipro Technologies named WMNetServ to deliver managed services to public and private network customers.
Next, it joined with Huawei Technologies to enhance its portfolio of UMTS and HSDPA infrastructure equipment globally and with Tech Mahindra via a new venture called CanvasM to develop and deliver application solutions for global network providers and enterprises. Finally, it will join with Softbank to launch a 2.5-GHz WiMAX mobility trial in Tokyo.
And, Apple Computer has allied with General Motors, Ford, and Mazda to integrate its highly successful iPod into car audio systems.
What kind of an impact will baby boomers, now starting to head into their sixties, have on the industry when they begin to retire? Many of them, including engineers, anticipate working beyond the normal retirement age. But will their companies welcome this decision?
By 2010, nearly a third of all U.S. workers will be over the age of 50. As these more seasoned employees start to retire, businesses and other organizations may lose not only core competencies and mentors of future talent, but also technical professionals with critical so-called institutional knowledge or memory. That means a loss of knowledge of their organization's culture, technology, capabilities, history of development of core products, management style, and even, more simply, how to get things done.
AT&T Labs, spun out of Bell Labs in the 1995 breakup of AT&T, has already lost much of its technology star power when some 200 engineers and scientists— nearly half of its core research staff—was let go in January 2002 amid larger corporate cuts. NASA, with many of its engineers and scientists retiring, may be a particularly unique example of this brain drain.
To help soften the blow of departing expertise, the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), AARP, and other organizations in the Alliance for an Experienced Workforce have formed a collaborative effort to reduce this knowledge gap.
"Our industry has demonstrated that technology, when used properly, is a key competitive advantage that can positively impact the long-term growth and success of organizations across our economy, from financial services and healthcare to transportation, manufacturing, education, and scores of other industries," says John Venator, president and CEO of CompTIA.
One of the long-term risks of losing in-house expertise, he says, is a slowdown in innovation. That's why CompTIA is joining with the other organizations in the Alliance for an Experienced Workforce to help employers understand, plan, and create workplaces that take advantage of the skills of employees over 50.
And what about the distant future of engineering? That is, future engineers. In July, CareerJournal.com teamed with Market research and polling firm Harris Interactive to develop a list of the best careers out there that was based on interviews with people about how satisfied they were with their careers. Engineering wasn't among the top eight careers listed.
One of the problems, many academics complain, is how engineering is perceived by young people in elementary and high schools. They're exposed to science and math, but not engineering. A number of efforts are under way to change this, but it may be a slow process.
One is the formation of the IEEE Center for Pre-University Engineering Education. Working with IBM and the New York Hall of Science, this outreach organization encourages students to study engineering in college through its Web site (www.tryengineering.org). The site targets students ages 8 to 18, teachers, school counselors, and parents about engineering and what engineers do. It also enables students to play games that introduce them to basic engineering concepts.
Another new IEEE initiative is the introduction of the Entrepreneurs Village, an online port designed to provide high-tech entrepreneurs with tools and resources conducive to innovation and company growth. The Entrepreneurs Village links tech-based entrepreneurs with their peers to provide networking opportunities and resources.
"Seventy-five percent of all innovation comes from small business, and successful small businesses become large businesses," says Mauro Togneri, cochair of the IEEE-USA Entrepreneurial Activities Committee. "Expanding technology-based entrepreneurial business is critical to the U.S. economy and IEEE members' career vitality and employment."
Data on the rate of engineers moving from one company to another is scarce at best. But a survey conducted by CompTIA found that many technology workers are restless over their current job situation and are actively searching for new opportunities. The survey of nearly 1000 IT workers found that 58% are currently looking for new jobs. The primary reason tech workers are scouring career Web sites and help-wanted ads? Higher pay.
It's still about the technology
Futurists and analysts have been busy predicting the future of technology and its growing role in society. Most people still access the Internet on a computer, but the use of mobile devices to check e-mail or browse the Web is outpacing even laptops in some markets, according to a study by Ipsos. The study indicates that about three in four households in the U.S. now own a mobile phone. Globally, the market penetration of mobile devices is likely to jump dramatically over the next few years as prices drop in developing and underdeveloped regions.
Again, what about engineers?
They have plenty of options. "Engineering graduates have analytical problem-solving skills that can easily be applied to a variety of disciplines," says Belle W.Y. Wei, dean of San Jose State University's College of Engineering. "This can be very attractive to employers."
With a chunk of EE graduates who end up in Silicon Valley companies, Wei has been pushing several ideas and concepts at SJSU. One is the recruitment of underrepresented demographic groups that would have a major impact on the H1B visa controversy. Another is to take a closer look at the role of government in spurring high-tech education, as well as what it can and ought to do and what it shouldn't get involved in. Another favorite Wei topic is the need for engineering education to ground its ivory tower knowledge in the reality of the contemporary and future engineering work environment.
Belle W.Y. Wei