Electronic Design

Career Paths: Today's Tough Job Market Calls For Versatility

Cross discipline and team capabilities are key to today's engineering careers.

In many ways, the engineering job outlook is a matter of perception, or more specifically, a matter of how engineering is perceived by those in high school and even middle school. This very same age group ultimately determines the quality of engineering graduates. With the electronics industry contracting and stagnating, and new technology allowing for easy outsourcing of engineering positions, the perception of job opportunity plays a critical role in actual job opportunities. If today's high-school students perceive the job opportunity to be great, they will flood the market in four years and create a very competitive environment. The reverse is equally true.

It could make for some exciting job opportunities in four years, notes Richard Heckel, technical director for Engineering Trends. The Houghton, Mich.-based consulting firm provides data on engineering admissions/graduations at colleges and universities (see Figures 1 and 2) (See also Web Figures 3 and 4).

Recent demand for engineers has been low, so freshmen engineering enrollment is expected to be low. As a result, in four years, the supply of new engineering professionals will be limited. However, if the expected economic recovery continues, the demand for engineers will start to ramp up in less than four years.

"So those in college now will have a field day searching for a good professional career," says Heckel. "Engineering goes through cycles related to demand cycles. But there is a big lag time between the demand for engineers and the time new ones graduate," says Heckel. "The best time to get into engineering is when things look worse."

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, overall engineering employment is expected to increase 3% to 9% through 2012, a slower than average rate. But job opportunities are expected to be "good" because the number of graduates should equal the number of job openings, according to the department's Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition. Very little in the way of job openings is anticipated from business expansion. Most, notes the handbook, will come from retirements, transfers, and the need to replace workers who move into management positions.

Yet within the engineering field, the opportunities vary greatly depending on the engineering specialty (see the table). For example, the Department of Labor predicts that computer software will be among the fastest growing fields for jobs. Computer-software engineering employment is expected to increase 36%—much faster than average for all jobs. But computer-hardware engineering jobs are predicted to rise only 3% to 9%. Two possible reasons for this difference in closely related fields are:

  1. Businesses increasingly need to integrate and network new components like handheld computers and wireless networks with older products. This is often an on-site project.
  2. Products can be created offshore.

To businesses, "hardware alone isn't the solution. Hardware and software provides the solution, and the differentiating factor among competitors is software," explains Jim Robertson, director of staffing for Actel, supplier of programmable-logic solutions such as field-programmable gate arrays based on antifuse and flash technologies. But that law of supply and demand could influence these positions. Engineering Trends' Heckel notes that full-time enrollments in computer science and computer engineering appear to have stagnated. Surveys of fall 2002 and 2001 enrollments say enrollment growth there has virtually stopped. "This is a startling change," he says. "We are patiently waiting for fall 2003 data."

"In comparison, since the fall of 1996, full-time undergraduate engineering enrollments grew 21% through the fall of 2001," Heckel says. "Two-thirds of this increase was in computer-related engineering fields. It now appears that growth in computer-related enrollments has ceased."

Politics factor in too, especially in defense and environmental engineering. A different political party in the White House and Congress could soon change the funds spent in those areas. Combine that with continued uncertainty about the economic direction, and few businesses other than the government are willing to predict the engineering-job outlook much beyond this year, if even that.

Knowledge of nanotechnology has become another differentiating hiring factor, one reason some companies are going for the recent college graduate. "Nano is clearly the direction we are all going," says Actel's Robertson. "In two to three years, I bet we will all be talking about nanotechnology compared to three to five years ago when the prevailing direction was the Internet. We are moving into realms of technology so incredibly sophisticated."

Regardless of industry or discipline, businesses are looking for candidates who can an work across disciplines; have top communication skills; work well in team environments; and keep up to date on their knowledge, especially nanotechnology. "We want engineers to understand components, lay out components, and then design software to explore all the capabilities hardware might have," says Lockheed Martin's Malcom O'Neill, vice president and chief technology officer. "They have to understand hardware and software." According to O'Neill, they are actually systems engineers. But that's not something one usually learns at a bachelor's degree level unless you're at one of the larger universities like Texas A&M, Penn State, or the University of Maryland. Even then, the degree is in a particular discipline.

Lockheed successfully hires graduates in electronics with lots of math background who are comfortable with scientific thinking. "You can get the system flavor on the job then, or at a graduate school level. People who are interested in systems can pick it up pretty quickly," says O'Neill. "Electronics engineers have the easiest time because they immediately get into duality. They can program in C, C+, understand circuitry and components. It's a good mix to start with."

Xerox also is "looking for people with the ability to bridge across several disciplines, such as mechanical and electronics," says Eduardo Bascaran, manager of engineering learning. "We are not looking for just programmers, but someone who can cross competencies, understand physics and mechanical systems so they can control it, plus systems engineering. They have to be able to work with smaller systems and integrate them into the overall system."

The need for systems capability requires similar capabilities on the human level. "We want engineers who can communicate, who can be part of the team," says Robertson.

"It is important to have people with communication skills to build across different functions and business groups," explains Xerox's Bascaran. "Engineers must be able to work in teams."

Ed Kennedy, human resource recruiter at NEC Electronics America, agrees. "We look for an engineer's people skills, someone who can relate well to others, resolve problems, and communicate well." NEC Electronics America is a semiconductor solutions provider for broadband networking, mobile, PC, automotive, and digital consumer markets.

"Another important skill at Xerox is having some knowledge of business, the ability to link the system decision to a business result. We don't want experts who don't know what the implications are of their decisions," Bascaran says. Cost, delivery, quality, and customer requirements are all part of the mix.

During your school tenure, getting practical work experience is critical. Then, when you're in the work force, updating your education is critical. College students should "take advantage of every opportunity for internships or co-op assignments. It will enhance their value several-fold," says Kennedy from NEC Electronics America.

To the engineer who has been on the job, Lockheed's O'Neill warns: "Very often, too many of us, especially when you get a master's degree, start thinking they know everything. But all your information is historical. It's not current from the moment you walk off the college campus, especially in the electronic and aerospace business. People must join engineering societies, attend seminars, and subscribe to periodicals in their areas of discipline. It is the only way you can keep up with what's going on. You won't be competitive without doing so. People really need to get them. Go through them at halftime of a football game."

Companies like Lockheed and Xerox provide continuing education to advance the technical skills of their employees. Xerox believes so strongly in ongoing education, it is Bascaran's primary job. "We don't only hire engineers, but work on educating our engineer," he says. "It's very difficult to find people familiar with our core technology. We look for people with a solid technical knowledge who can learn quickly."

It's no surprise that offshore outsourcing is hurting engineering opportunities here, but is it a plus or minus for business? What can be done about it?

IEEE is working to educate politicians on the impact of offshoring, not just on engineers, but on the U.S. itself, says Ron Hira, volunteer chair of the Career and Workforce Police Committee of IEEE. "It displaces workers, and that makes it a less attractive career option. When that happens, the best and brightest don't pursue these professions. That calls into question the U.S.'s ability in the future to innovate." No one has come up with a way to deal with that negative effect, he says.

A related issue is the quality and diversity of engineering graduates. Xerox's Joseph Hammill, responsible for talent acquisition, says businesses must expand their requirements from just the grade point average. "Companies are becoming narrow-minded about what the top caliber people are. We need to open our eyes to other character components, such as good interpersonal skills and are they leaders on campus."

Many engineering students at U.S. schools are foreign nationals. It's up to American industry to change that, O'Neill says. "Industries have to get involved, make sure this American engineering product continues to be the world's best. You have to take some responsibility to make sure your industry prospers. We have to volunteer to go to universities, to middle schools, and to give a talk to every seventh grade class. We have to take some responsibility."

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