Electronic Design

EEs Try To Survive The Changing Workplace

Outsourcing, contracting, and a lack of fundamentals in the new breed of EEs are just some of the hot-button issues whipping up debate within the electronics engineer's environment.

It has become abundantly clear to all electronics engineers that the workplace is morphing at a rapid clip. In fact, you could say the change is as drastic, if not more so, than when the electronic calculator and the PC replaced the slide rule.

This time it's more a sociological than a technological evolution, though. Younger engineers, according to their senior colleagues, are coming out of school heavily reliant upon the latest software tools. They lack an understanding of the underlying math and physics and are largely unable or unwilling to pick up a soldering iron.

But it's not just the mindsets of the up-and-comers that bother experienced electrical engineers. It's also the mindsets of their employers. No longer can an EE count on lifelong employment. The newest generation of design tools facilitates distributed design. Thus, firms now export more of their product development work to lower-cost locations and make greater use of contract workers. Life just isn't the same anymore.

The undisputed hot button right now is outsourcing. You don't need a pink slip to care about outsourcing, whether it's defined as the exporting of jobs to other countries where labor costs are lower or a decision to focus on "core competencies" and hire outside vendors to do everything else. Either way, the goal from a management perspective is to improve the bottom line by controlling costs without making an impact on time-to-market. Engineers see it quite differently:

"It... (inhaling vigorously)," says Carol Baumann, a senior engineer at AnaCom Inc., "has been happening for decades in the manufacturing arena. But now that it's affecting higher-level positions, it's become a hot topic. I always 'buy American' when it's an option."

Increasingly, however, buying goods manufactured in America or partaking of services provided by individuals who live in the U.S. is not an option. Needless to say, some engineers surveyed by Electronic Design have a problem with that.

"When I'm doing market research and call people to interview them, I ask where they're located. They tell me Trinidad, Tobago, India, and everywhere else around the world," says Henry Lucas, an engineering manager at a large aerospace firm. "If I have a problem and I'm dealing with a U.S. firm, and if they don't have an answer, they at least can understand the question, and they'll usually follow up. Now, trying to get answers about boxes built overseas, the people you talk to can't understand the question. And the higher you go, the worse the English is, and the lower the technical competence. Either it's a dry hole, or they send you stuff that's nowhere near what you're looking for."

"We're working with engineers in India, and we're losing a lot in translation," says Alan Kopnicky, president of PLC2GO Inc. "Engineers there are methodical, but not highly motivated. They go really, really slowly. \[When you\] spend one-fifth the money, it's not surprising that things take longer.

"Some jobs are more likely for outsourcing than others," suggests Branin A. Boyd, vice president of engineering for Thermal Instrument Co. "Jobs such as \[pc-board\] layout and board assembly can be moved \[to parts of the world\] with little overhead. Other jobs, such as customer service and trouble reports, may seem to work at first, but I feel that negative customer reaction will return those jobs to an area closer to the firm sooner or later. This is a temporary disturbance in organization that will take awhile to find a working solution."

Boyd's scenario is being played out: "Our government gives companies incentives to export work out of the country," notes Kopnicky. "The pc-board industry in this country has literally been destroyed. About 70% of fab houses have disappeared in the last two years. This country was founded on people being innovative, and we're giving all of our innovation away. That's nuts. It's called 'selling us short.' Maybe by the time it all comes crashing down I'll be retired."

Meanwhile, some companies may be tiring of outsourcing. Adam Nowotarski, an RF engineer at Willtek, saw about 100 of his colleagues "lose jobs they had been doing for years" when their employer decided to outsource its manufacturing overseas. "I've kept in touch with people at the company, and I understand that now they're thinking about bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.," he says. "Engineers were having issues with very poor quality. There were a lot of defects, and the manufacturing yield was low."

"It's too soon to determine the long-term cost-to-benefit ratio of outsourcing engineering design and development," adds Alain Gronner, vice president, technologies, for Carmel Telecom Inc., "but stories are beginning to appear about firms returning to 'onshoring' after being burned by outsourcing. The long-term economic health of our country may be seriously compromised if we keep losing manufacturing and engineering capabilities to other countries. It's not a sustainable proposition."

"As a consumer I feel that it can lead to better price/performance ratios, but I don't think it is healthy for the country as a whole," suggests Alastair Roxburgh, chief engineer at Alpha Digital Technologies. "It is a wider trend than just manufacturing. The DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) has already scared almost all encryption research and reverse engineering overseas. Now competition and desire for profit is scaring manufacturing overseas, too. R&D is probably next."

Brian Hinton, a power development engineer at a large computer company, believes that the outsourcing of engineering jobs is "fueled by corporate greed." He explains, "Outsourcing has contributed significantly to widening the trust gap between employees and employers, so we are seeing more and more of the 'us against them' concept," he says. "Another impact of outsourcing is on engineering salaries," Hinton continues. "Merit increases and recognition for doing a good job mostly don't exist anymore. But competition has basically forced the outsourcing issue so we're stuck with it at present."

"Today, companies' social responsibilities are defined only by laws and what would cause outrage in the press," says Bob Zeliff, manager of advanced development at Goodrich. "While outsourcing has some world and competitive benefit, open-loop outsourcing is only about dollars next week and next month, and it sacrifices employee and social responsibility to that greed."

"Outsourcing of engineering or design, especially to overseas vendors, puts me in a gloomy mood generally," concludes Alan Roehr, a pc-board designer at Daktronics. "I keep hearing about the loss of engineering jobs in the U.S. and it is not something I can be proud of."

Following along those lines, Amos Young, an engineer at AMI Semiconductor, doesn't see much that's positive about outsourcing. Speaking primarily of the domestic variety, he says, "I see the company allowing the outside firms to slip schedules, where that wouldn't be allowed if the work was done in-house. I see the outsourced work requiring almost the same amount of effort from our engineering staff as they use to do their own job. \[The in-house staff must\] train this outsourced group to do the work they claimed that they knew how to do."

Other engineers are more sanguine. One of Adrien Abbasi's previous employers closed a facility in Silicon Valley and split the work done there between operations in Minnesota and Scotland. "They offered us a nice (severance) package," says Abbasi, a design electrical engineer at Optivus Technology. "I didn't take it personally and would have done the same thing if I were in their position. Things always work out for the best."

Abbasi's current employer has handed off tasks to third-party firms. "It is reducing our design responsibilities, which reduces our projects and tasks, but I personally wouldn't mind because we're so understaffed," he says.

Abbasi moved from one engineering job to another, but others, especially older engineers, have been less successful. One is making a transition to the automotive industry, but in a retail sales capacity. A friend of another engineer is leveraging his PhD as a pizza delivery person.

Even more ominous than current job losses from outsourcing is the trend's impact on engineering creativity, according to Alexander Tokhtuev, lead software engineer at GE OEC Medical Systems. "Creative work is more proscribed and encumbered by more guidelines," he says. "As opposed to being done by an engineer or a workgroup, designs are being provided by consultants. Everyone sees that their input is very localized."

To Tokhtuev, management has an interest in turning engineering from a creative process to a "commodity," because, compared with a creative process, a commodity is much easier to manage. One of the first steps toward commodity status is requirements planning. "If I have good requirements, I don't need a lot of creative input, and it's easier to move projects around, from one place to another," he explains.

"The more you make engineering a commodity—with structure, communication, defined tasks, and consistent tools—the easier it is to outsource it. You can't outsource a process that isn't well defined, or doesn't work," he adds.

In Tokhtuev's view, management's desire to commoditize the design process has turned engineering on its head. "It used to be that we'd do what we wanted, get to a final design phase, then optimize it and document it to describe how it works. Now, the documentation happens up front. We're required to write up what we're going to do—analyze in advance—and produce a lot of paperwork as we go," he says.

One benefit of that approach, he concedes, is that the product-development information repository remains stable despite turnover on the engineering team. "\[Process-driven design\] cramps creativity but produces more predictable results. That may be bad for a few very creative breakthroughs, but it's good for day-to-day operations."

Tokhtuev's firm currently uses a common process framework within which engineers based in the U.S. can work with their colleagues in India. "\[Engineers in India\] understand better if you talk to them in a special \[process-related\] language rather than from your particular background or attitude," he says. "This approach values and achieves predictability. When you get an idea, there's usually no easy way to go and try it first. You have to put it into a project, describe why you want to do it, and allocate time and resources. Whether you can do it or not depends on the overall situation, if there's enough free time to permit someone to go off on a tangent."

Tokhtuev says that process stifles "the uncontrolled creativity that produces great results from time to time, but can also fail spectacularly." Basically, he adds, "it's a change from the Wild West to more civilized but more boring situations."

Albert Au, an engineer at PerkinElmer Optoelectronics, uses a different analogy: "Whenever there's an imbalance of pressure, such as a difference in electrical potential, electrons will migrate, following the natural law of physics. It is the same situation in job outsourcing. Until the difference in wages and standards of living comes to a balance, the outsourcing will continue. Like electrons will find the lowest resistance path, companies will find the least expensive way of doing business."

The trend toward outsourcing has fostered the long sacrosanct "Ace In The Hole" for many engineers—to hang out your own shingle and be your own boss as a consultant. Lost your job? No problem! As a consultant, you can set your own schedule and make more money in less time. It sounds glamorous, but there's something about contract workers that makes in-house full-time engineers just a bit uneasy—especially if they and the contractors have similar skills.

None of the engineers interviewed by Electronic Design complained about seeing the familiar faces of former employees brought back on a temporary basis. Nor was concern expressed when companies hired engineers to provide skills that none of the in-house team members possessed or just threw bodies against an otherwise impossible workload.

Engineer Henry Lucas reports that his company, which is involved in aerospace, has hired contract workers, including former employees who have retired and others who have expertise in some area the company needs for a short time.

"Because of the complexity of our designs, we form long-term relationships with the contract workers we use," reports Danaher's Alon Harpaz. "Some of them are former full-time employees (who possess) skills that can only be acquired over a long and painful learning period."

Allen Hamid Ziaimehr, a principal engineer at Arizant Healthcare, says his firm uses contract workers both to supplement and extend skills the firm already has. "It has to do with timing," he says. "A particular job might be beyond our expertise, and we don't want to have to hire someone quickly, or we might have a call for a certain skill but not need that skill again for another decade. It's easier just to bring in what we need when we need it."

"Our company and our engineering department have been growing very rapidly for the past two years," reports Mark Rackin, a senior electrical engineer at Panasonic Automotive Systems Company. "If it weren't for contractors, both on-site and remote, we would not have been able to attain the success and profitability levels we now have that enable us to justify and fund many new permanent positions."

The need for speed is one of the drivers behind the increased use of contract workers, according to Adrien Abbasi, a design electrical engineer at Optivus Technology. "We had a job that required working from a high level down to detail design. It would have taken a long time, and we didn't have enough manpower, so we hand the specs to a contractor, get the design, and produce the device," he says.

But Abbasi finds working with contract employees more difficult than working with in-house staff. "With a full-time employee, if you have a problem with a drawing or a procedure you just walk into their office, or call a meeting, and reach a quick agreement," he says. "But \[the contract workers\] work from home or over the Internet, and most of the time they're not here. You send e-mails and then wait for them to respond. It's very challenging, and projects get delayed. Also, no matter how good a writer you are, it's always more difficult to raise points on paper than when you're meeting face to face."

Adam Stienecker, currently a graduate student at the University of Toledo, says the firm at which he was previously employed hired contract workers "when things weren't getting done as fast as the company wanted, but then they'd forget the reason they hired them and decided to fire them. It was cyclical. The contract workers would slowly creep back in, then be fired again. Management saw them as people who could be thrown away, so it wasn't a big issue to them. The contract engineers knew that and could handle it."

But the revolving door presents problems. "It is extremely difficult to have design continuity when the people doing the design are contractors, unaware of previous pitfalls and design problems, who move on after they are paid for their efforts," says Kim Myers, a senior electrical engineer at Paxar Corp.

"It takes nearly as much time to manage a contractor design and hope that you get your project done on time and somewhere close to budget," Myers continues. "Overall, it would be more effective, faster, and cheaper to have the design expertise on staff, so that any future problems that arise from the design can be handled without trying to find the designers and paying them to correct a design problem that wasn't specified or known about during the design cycle."

Ronald Barasch, an electrical engineer working for a government agency, complains that the government is hiring contractors to do the work previously done by full-time government employees. "They sit side by side with us. Frequently, you cannot tell if you are working with a contractor or a government employee," he says. "The main difference is that their salary is higher and occasionally their contract is awarded to another company, which forces them to change companies or leave."

"Employment in general is more than likely going the contract route," says David Hayes, president of E-H Engineering Ltd. "For the most part, it is good for all parties, but a number of the firms that use contract engineers have money savings as their objective regardless of the capability of the individual."

"Companies hire contract workers when they don't want to pay for a permanent position," agrees Albert Au, an engineer at PerkinElmer Optoelectronics, who adds that short-term assignments reflect short-term goals.

These fundamental changes on design-team makeup have affected how the design team works together. Increasingly, it's becoming a distributed design because of the influence of outsourcing. Sophisticated collaboration software has yet to permeate the world of electronic-system development, but e-mail didn't take off right away either. At present, especially for companies operating on tight budgets, exchanging .pdf (Adobe's portable document format) files over the Internet is sufficient for putting remote heads together.

Opportunities for collaborative product design continue to mushroom as a result of international and domestic outsourcing, as well as the use of contract workers to supplement or expand beyond in-house capabilities. Other key factors are the power and sophistication of desktop engineering tools currently available and the relative ease and reliability of Internet communication.

Typical of the engineers surveyed by Electronic Design is Adam Nowotarski, an RF engineer at Willtek, who says, "The idea of collaborative software has been brought up as a way to streamline the design process, but we haven't pursued it." Nowotarski "deals with the global community," telephoning engineers in Germany before 10 a.m. "I'm also working with a supplier in China, and we sell our products in South America and Asia," adds Nowotarski. "There's a whole global web of product moving around the world. We have to coordinate out design efforts with engineers in Germany, and to do that we send diagrams back and forth."

Distributed design is by no means a new phenomenon. Alan Ritter, an Engineering Fellow at Bausch and Lomb, has participated in distributed design projects over the past 25 years, "since the days when distributed design involved phone calls and mailing 8-in. floppy disks back and forth."

Now, he says, "Corporate headquarters are in Rochester, N.Y. We're in St. Louis, and we have facilities in Salt Lake City and Munich. I've worked on projects with groups in both Salt Lake and Rochester at various times. Our contract design firms are not local, so we have to deal with conference calls, e-mail, and 'virtual teams' on a regular basis. We distribute our ophthalmic systems worldwide, so it's not at all unusual to work with clinical advisors and marketing/sales folks in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere."

Graduate student Adam Stienecker has worked on a several distributed design projects, primarily on discrete electronics, within the past few years. "Projects have involved people who excelled at different design levels," he says. "There were problems on projects in which some people couldn't express themselves through engineering drawings."

Abbasi and his colleagues typically exchange .pdf files and use Adobe Acrobat to modify or make notes on engineering drawings and other documents. Al Sather, an engineering quality manager for an aerospace firm, uses collaboration software during the design process, creating a mathematical model from which information can be extracted for us in manufacturing parts.

"Today, engineers can do their own layout," says Arizant Healthcare's Allen Hamid Ziaimehr. "You can't work without a computer and can't do without the information that's available on the Internet." Adds Alpha Digital Technologies' Alastair Roxburgh, "Schematic capture, circuit board layout—the whole computer infrastructure has improved. It's easier to produce drawings and diagrams than ever before."

Such improvements facilitate distributed design, but in an earlier time, Ziaimehr says, "We worked with a smaller number of people, but were a lot closer, and there were more friendships. It was important to develop relationships and trust. Nowadays, everybody knows what's going on, and everybody has to check everybody else. The environment today is very impersonal: send work over the Internet, receive it over the Internet. There are more people to keep track of, and every piece of work seems to need a new expert." Quality may have improved in recent years, "but I don't think \[the quality\] is proportional to the work required to get it," says Ziaimehr.

Distributed design teams have the potential to work effectively, presuming that they include "the right people and the proper guidelines," offers Andrew Kostic, an Engineering Fellow with Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems. "A good team is better than a good individual, but the opposite is also true—a team is worse than a good individual. One issue is that teams might not be as effective at sharing their experiences, so each team tends to reinvent the wheel." This is one problem that collaboration software purports to solve.

In what other ways are the tools of engineering keeping up with the changing times? Tool- and process-wise, almost nothing is the same as it was when a raft of 1960s-era baby-boomers answered the challenge of Sputnik and entered the engineering profession. The slide rule was supplanted initially by the electronic calculator, then by minicomputers manufactured by companies now long departed, and later by the PC. Amazingly, it became possible for an individual engineer's programs and data files to consume the entire contents of a 10-Mbyte disk!

Engineering tools are "absolutely different" from those available when Abel Raynus, senior engineer at Armatron International, began his engineering career some 50 years ago. "There was no software when I started," he says, adding that engineers then took a very different approach to design. "It was all done at the component level; designing-in every logic IC and every capacitor. Now, we design by blocks. And there are wonderful tools available. It's very exciting."

"There are huge differences in the tools available today and those available in the mid-1970s," notes Bausch and Lomb's Alan Ritter. "I learned minicomputer programming at MIT using a (Digital Equipment Corp.) PDP-1 and spent many years working with PDP-11 minicomputers. We had a variety of other lab minis back in grad school. How many engineers remember what a LINC (Laboratory INstrument Computer) was?"

Back in the day, Ritter designed circuit boards with tape on Mylar at 4:1 scale and developed software on a PDP-11/23 with a TSX-11 operating system. "We then went through Sun 68000-based workstations, Sun SPARC, and now PCs that would put any of those old boxes to shame. But I still remember the older systems as being just as quick as the newer ones. It seems like no matter how many MIPS you have, the software gerbils will eat them up with code that's fancier, but seldom any more useful."

More than just the hardware and software has changed, though, say engineers surveyed by Electronic Design. The pace is different, as are the relationships, the opportunity for creativity, and the degree to which engineers rely on automated modeling and simulation tools.

"I left college with a slide rule, and any large computation was done on an electromechanical calculator," recalls Al Sather. "When we put out a memo, we'd give it to an office assistant to type and distribute it. Today the pace is much faster. We're working with engineers on the other side of the world through Web-based communication that's almost instantaneous."

No one was using computers when Arizant's Ziaimehr began his engineering career. "A big-enough outfit might use a mainframe, but that was it. Most small businesses used pencil and paper. When I did design work, I used pencil and paper and a Rubylith layout. Changes were a pain," he says.

"Now, engineers can do their own layout," he continues. "You can't work without a computer and can't do without the information that's available on the Internet. You need to know a lot more nowadays to do the same job, and there's a lot more reports and other paperwork required. That wasn't expected in the old days. People had plenty to do."

Ziaimehr suggests that quality may have improved in recent years. "But I don't think (the quality) is proportional to the work required to get it," he says.

"Today's tools are just wonderful," says Al Chen, who teaches electrical engineering at ITT Technical Institute. "I started my education with a slide rule and had to memorize all the engineering; conversions and constants. The emphasis then was on understanding the engineering principles rather than tedious number-crunching.

"When HP developed its first scientific calculator in the early '70s, it revolutionized the engineering field," Chen continues. "It was a great tool. The affordable PC and workstation evolved in the '80s through the '90s. Then I observed an interesting phenomenon that to me is kind of scary. Some of my students had their calculator in their hand and trusted that any number the calculator displayed had to be the correct answer."

Chen says one of his students calculated a problem in two different ways and got two different answers. "He described both approaches and I assured him that both were correct. I proved it to him using my own calculator and some simpler numbers. Both approaches produced the same result on my calculator but two different results on his. It turned out that he had set his calculator in the hex mode and was trying to calculate decimal numbers. My conclusion is that tools can only be as good as the user. Otherwise, fatal mistakes can be made."

Several of the engineers surveyed by Electronic Design reached a similar conclusion. "More design tools are available now for automating processes, and the tools are far more integrated today than they were 10 years ago" according to Willtek's Adam Nowotarski. "But at the same time, the complexity of systems has gone up. I don't rely entirely on simulation. I'm the dinosaur that still breaks out the soldering iron, because sometimes there's a difference between theory and reality, and even if the simulation says it should work, it doesn't."

Engineering manager Henry Lucas noted that modeling tools are a lot more software-oriented than they were when he began his engineering career. "That's okay, as long as the model fits real life," he says. "But I've seen a number of cases where the model would work but the prototype wouldn't and you'd fall on your sword—or screwdriver."

Lucas goes on to say, "In one case, we experienced a wideband signal problem in a satellite communications project that involved a lot of image rejection. It turned out that the software program wasn't calculating valid image responses. If the team had tried it in hardware, it would have been obvious immediately. Because they didn't, it caused a lot of embarrassment. There are a lot of things you can't simulate."

Grad student Adam Stienecker agrees. "Design and simulation tools are necessary in order to keep up with the pace of work today. We hardly do anything without them, yet in the days when tools weren't available, and engineers had to do all their equations with paper and pencil, engineers were able to learn a lot that they really couldn't learn otherwise. They might have learned on the job, years ago, but that's no longer possible given the pace of development today," he says.

"It's sad, but inevitable, to see the decline in quality that comes from the habit of relying on automated tools," Stienecker continues. "It tends to restrict engineers to the design-only aspect of R&D. It's faster to use a program to design a digital filter, for example. But when you go step by step through the design process, it becomes ingrained, and an engineer's intuitive abilities are improved as a result of using higher-level math."

Stienecker predicts a falloff in new and improved methodologies. "Those have been handed off to academia. We're separating the atmospheres of engineering and education, but we really need to marry them a lot closer to each other, as they were at one time," he says.

Geoff Lees, general manager of the microcontroller product line at Philips Semiconductor, disagrees with Stienecker's prediction. "We've increased productivity between fivefold and tenfold over what it was just five years ago. We've done it by creating a more flexible work environment within which groups form and reform rapidly," he notes.

"As recently as five years ago," he says, "groups consisting of as many as 30 people, with skills ranging from circuit design to physical layout, would work on one product at a time, and development could take a year or two. Today, we no longer have that luxury, so we've compressed to work on parallel projects, each slightly different, but based on the same IP (intellectual property). With an increase in overhead of just 20%, we've been able to create three similar looking products as opposed to one."

What makes the productivity increase possible, according to Lees, is a combination of myriad methodology improvements and the use of development wafers that can accommodate three or four different designs. "Five years ago, we'd have a dedicated mask for each design, with endless reworking before a product could be released to production," he explains. "Now, with multiple designs on the same wafer, it's survival of the fittest. The first product for which we can generate volume orders will be the first to get a dedicated mask."

Lees says engineers who reach the front end of one project move immediately to the front end of another. "Engineers no longer stay with a single project from concept through production. But nearly all engineers want to be associated with successful products, and with this method of organization, they can be," he says.

Since what seems like the dawn of time, the older generation has been concerned that those following in its footsteps are "not like we were." And engineers are no exception. The shortcoming that experienced engineers focus upon, for better or worse, is a lack of understanding of the "basics" of the profession and, as a result, an over-reliance on tools.

"They can't 'breadboard'," charges Armatron's Abel Raynus, a self-described "old-school" engineer, about his up-and-coming colleagues. Younger engineers typically turn to technicians for help whenever a soldering iron is required. "They work perfectly well with computers, but when you breadboard something, you really see how it works."

There is, of course, a danger in generalizing about a generation. As Alpha Digital's Alastair Roxburgh points out, "You can always find someone who goes completely against the stereotype. If there weren't exceptions, there wouldn't be enough continuity in many companies to keep things going."

And some younger engineers, at least, are willing to listen. Andrea Jackson, a recent graduate who has been working as an engineer at Ball Aerospace for less than a year, says she notices a tremendous difference between younger and older workers.

"Since the younger workers are so inexperienced, we are open to suggestions and are eager to learn from anyone who is willing to teach," she says. "The older workers have the experience and know that everyone has an opinion, and some of those opinions are not always in your best interest."

Jackson has also noticed that some of the older workers are not always open to the new technology that is being developed. "I have heard from more than one person that 'If the way we are doing business has worked for us this long, why should we change now?'" she says.

Sure, today's tools allow an engineer to do more, "but the education to use those tools is not there," counters Francis Bartley, engineering manager, R&D, at Liebherr Mining Equipment Co., "and younger workers don't have any idea how to do a drawing."

Arizant's Ziaimehr concedes that younger engineers have the advantage of familiarity with the latest CAD packages. "It may be difficult to teach older engineers to use the newer CAD packages, but the older engineers are more familiar with rules of thumb, and they know the underlying techniques and technologies," he says.

Ziaimehr says older workers often start with math and physics, rather than a particular program. "Younger workers place more emphasis on computer-based tools and don't worry as much about the underlying information," he says. "They just simulate, and if it works, it works. When you have the underlying knowledge, though, you can do original work. And if you come across something that the tools aren't equipped to handle, you have other resources. A younger worker might say that if something can't be simulated, it can't be done."

"I had 'Mr. Wizard,' but (younger engineers) had 'Bill Nye the Science Guy,' or less," says Northrop Grumman's Andrew Kostic. "Younger engineers are just as bright, but they're not as focused and intent. Perhaps that will come with experience. Attention spans have been trained for sound bites, and the academic competition in the schools \[that\] most of them attended is much more relaxed."

Optivus' Abbasi agrees. "Younger engineers don't know the fundamentals. They come out of college knowing the latest IC design tools, and you don't find many senior engineers who are so up-to-date. But it's the senior engineers who understand the fundamentals, the very basic stuff that any engineer needs to know," he says.

Abbasi observes that younger engineers tend to be more enthusiastic, compared with their senior counterparts. "They want to get a job done right away, no matter how far they have to go, or what it takes. They move faster. They want results now," he says.

"It's speed versus quality," he continues. "Senior workers move things along a little more slowly. They want to take their time and do it right." Abbasi adds, "Of course there are some very senior workers that just want to retire."

Engineering quality manager Al Sather says that in the face of ongoing pressure to reduce costs, his firm gave its employees an opportunity to retire, and a few too many took the offer. "The unintended consequence was a severe lack of experience in some key areas," he says. "If you have a lot of engineers in a particular area, it's possible to bring someone in right out of college and assign a mentor. With everybody lean, and budgets so tight, that's more difficult now."

In the electronics industry, we've always been able to look forward and predict a better future. But with the sea of change washing over the global business nowadays, the future isn't as predictable and not necessarily brighter, especially here in America. The only certainty these days is that nothing stays the same.

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