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Electronic Design

Will Impending Engineer Shortages Impede Progress?

As many companies in the electronics industry shed employees to stay competitive in these tough economic times, I wonder if we have gone past cutting the fat and now are trimming away too much of the industry's muscle. At the same time, we see a decreasing number of students enrolling in engineering programs. Additionally, the government has been shifting funding away from the physical sciences and placing a stronger emphasis on life sciences. That leaves fewer dollars to fund research in semiconductor and electronics industry-related subjects. So not only are staffing levels at their lowest in a long time, but when conditions improve, there might be fewer engineers to choose from.

Government-supported research—which often helps offset university costs—typically allows researchers to explore fundamental technologies and architectural concepts. This type of research is especially important because the fundamental technologies will lay the groundwork for future generations of semiconductor structures and all manners of systems. Such research has become even more critical as some of the research trusts over past years, like Bell Labs, IBM, the RCA Princeton labs, among others, have closed or drastically cut back on generic research. They also have placed a stronger emphasis on research that would lead to near-term commercial applications and thus revenue.

Most critical in my mind, though, is the expected shortfall of new graduates who will seek employment in the second half of this decade and beyond. Has the reduction in research funding caused the universities to cut back their drive to increase their engineering student enrollment? Or, has the smell of big money in the dot-com and life science areas already tempted students away from careers in engineering? Perhaps the contraction in the dot-com industry will cause a few to rethink their career paths.

Not only will the industry need new graduates to fill the ranks as staffs expand, but many companies are already looking for very specific talent. Advanced technology products that companies are striving to develop rely on new architectures and system concepts that were never taught in school. Additionally, because the technologies are often very specialized, few engineers have the working experience to truly meet the job descriptions. Therefore, the industry must "grow" its own talent, a process that takes time and may obstruct progress.

However, learning on the job and innovative thinking are two things that engineers do best. The challenges awaiting us—crafting the 40-Gbit/s network infrastructure, developing processors capable of 10-GHz operation, defining the "4G" phone network, and much more—require designers with unbridled enthusiasm. As long as we always meet technology challenges enthusiastically, this industry can keep moving forward. Furthermore, we must instill future generations with the desire to do the same, so that progress will continue.

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