Electronic Design

Staying Employed In This Industry Can Be Tough At Times

In an issue where we celebrate the top 50 employers and also list the top employers in the electronics OEM, it’s worthwhile to bring up one of the dirty words of the industry—unemployment.

As someone who has lived through many of the industry’s downturns and experienced layoffs firsthand, I can say with certainty that this profession is fraught with career minefields. But probably you already know that.

When I found myself out of a job early in my career due to a downturn in the industry, I absolutely did the wrong thing. I dropped out of grad school, which my company had been paying for. When I couldn’t find another position right away, I found a job in another field.

Somehow it didn’t dawn on me that the best way to survive the downturn was to stay in graduate school and, when things turned around, try to get back into the workforce with an improved educational background. But what did I know?

Maybe I wasn’t listening, but I don’t remember any of my professors warning us future EEs about the volatility of the industry we were joining. In my naiveté, I thought an EE degree essentially meant that I would have a job for life. After all, in other professions and even other engineering disciplines, this is often the case.

In fact, the “other” EE degree— electrical engineering rather than electronic engineering—seems to lead to a much more stable profession. But I was smitten with electronics and didn’t consider working at a utility, such as Con Edison, which services the New York area.

Many other EEs have had similar career snafus. I meet them all the time. One guy who I knew many years ago and worked in the defense industry like me got so tired of bouncing around from one company to another, depending on which one secured the latest military contract, he finally quit and went back to school for an accounting degree. Thankfully, I never went that far.

A couple of other guys now work on the periphery of the industry. Both started their own networking companies, one after getting laid off from a satellite communications company and the other from a semiconductor company. But they aren’t designing networking chips or equipment. They’re simply building and maintaining PC networks for small businesses.

Another fellow I know has a son who graduated with an EE degree back in 2002 and couldn’t find a job in the industry during that downturn. Now, his son works in another field. If I had known the son better, I probably would have advised him to go to grad school, as I mentioned earlier, and wait for the industry to recover. But even if he were my own son, I think it would have been a hard sell.

Of course, EEs fare better in some companies than in others. National Instruments didn’t resort to layoffs during the devastating years following the dot-com meltdown in March 2000. When I first heard this (back in 2004, if I remember correctly), I felt NI should be held up as a model for this industry.

If every company held on to its EEs during the tough times, the profession would gain in stability and respectability. And, there might never be a “lack of EE graduates” to worry about. One generation of happily employed engineers would surely encourage the next generation to follow a similar career path.

On the subject of industry downturns, I had a chance to talk with Theo Claasen, executive VP of business development and board member of NXP, at the recent International Electronics Forum (IEF) in Dubai, UAE. At one point in the conversation, he mentioned that for the most part the semiconductor industry has been cyclical with high average growth.

When I asked if these industry ups and downs were ever going to end, he pointed out that in the last few years the semiconductor industry has been less cyclical with healthy growth in the high single-digits. Maybe this is what’s needed after all. If companies don’t have to experience boom and bust cycles every few years, maybe there will be a trickle-down effect to EEs, who will finally enjoy some long-term job security.

As for my own story, I got back into the industry through the back door, so to speak, securing a job in the editorial end of the business—a position that required an EE degree. I have to admit I was thrilled when I landed that job many years ago and am still happy to be part of this industry today.

This issue names 50 and more of the top employers in the electronics industry. We hope that it will be of value to you in your career, as well as to engineering students you may know who might benefit from knowing where to place their first resumes.

TAGS: Defense
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