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Special Report:
What's Next for ECEs?
April 2003
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Demand For ECEs
In a Sluggish Job Market...

In spite of a weak economy and a sluggish job market, electrical and computer engineers are still in demand in some regions and industries, according to a survey of alumni Bradley Fellows and Scholars. The alumni cite a general weakened demand, however, saying engineers with special skills are more successful and that finding positions at all skill levels is more difficult than in past years.

The alumni fellows and scholars represent career lives ranging from new graduates to about 10 years experience and their employment runs the ECE gamut from the telecom industry to shipbuilding and includes non-traditional fields such as auto-racing.

“There is always demand for a good engineer, regardless of the background,” said Zion Lo (BSEE ‘94, MSEE ‘96, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign), who works as a software developer in Colorado.

“I think that EEs and CPEs will always be in demand,” agreed Garrett Mears (BSCPE ‘00). “The specific technology that we studied in school may not be in demand, but the foundation of knowledge as well as the training in the engineering methodology make EEs and CPEs adaptable to the latest technology and always in demand,” he said.

Downside of Weak Demand

There may be demand, indicated Jason Hess (MSEE ‘99), who works for Cisco Systems in Austin, Texas, but not necessarily for new hires. “Companies are forced to do more with what they have,” he said. This does not always work in the engineers’ favor, he suggested.
He observed that a disturbing trend, “especially at cash-strapped startups, is that companies will lay off the entire development staff once the product is ready to go to market in order to lower the ‘burn rate.’ Then, if the product succeeds in the market, the executives and sales teams reap the rewards for the hard work of the engineers.”

Skills Mix More Critical

Economic conditions have not just changed what happens on the job, but who gets the jobs and the skills mix required, the alumni indicated.

“Not so long ago, CPE job opportunities were flooding the market, and a lot of people who were not formally trained as CPEs were doing CPE-type jobs,” said John McHenry (Ph.D. ‘93). “Now that the market has slowed, I think that having a degree is a much more important factor in job hunting than it was previously.”

Eric Nuckols (MSEE ‘99), an engineering specialist for ITT Industries, sees that it’s not just the degree that becomes important, but specific skills sets. “ECEs are currently still in demand,” he said. “However, from what I can see, the market is saturated with the average ECE who has taken the core curriculum courses and is kind of ho-hum about the field. There is demand out there, but the demand is for hard-working, quick, bright engineers who have a skill set in addition to a good fundamental understanding of certain principles depending on their area of focus.”

He observed that “I have worked in groups that have quite a few ECE graduates, but amongst them, the majority do not possess useful skills in software development (embedded software, microprocessor level, real time kernel software, high level C/C++, GUI development, Java experts...), or in hardware development (FPGA, DSP, PLD, RF hardware design, PCB layout, and PCI/I2C bus design). Those without prominent skills have been through a standard ECE degree with labs here and there or maybe some intern /co-op experience and have just dabbled in areas that require less knowledge of a particular software or hardware skill set. As a result, I see the engineers who have the skills being called upon first to work on the interesting projects, while the others are stuck in meetings, doing reports, writing documentation, and bouncing from project to project with little direction within the company.”

Where the Jobs Are

Where are the jobs? “Not in the Pittsburgh area,” reported Scott Stern (BSEE ‘93), a program manager for Compunetix in Monroeville, PA. “There have been many rounds of layoffs at the major high-tech companies in the area, and there is a lot of competition for EE jobs,” he said. “Some EEs have settled for work at places like Radio Shack, and many of my EE friends are collecting unemployment compensation.”

There is demand in the government sector, according to William Barnhart (MSEE ‘02), an RF design engineer for Raytheon. Communications in the private sector is weak, but communications for government projects remains strong,” he said. “The hottest area I’ve been exposed to is software radios, FPGA, and DSP design,” he added.

Kevin Cooley (BSEE ‘02), who works at the Reactor Plant Planning Yard at the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard, also indicated demand in the government sector. “In spring 2002, few employers were hiring, but I had four interviews with four different departments at the Newport News shipyard,” he said.

Greg Durgin (Ph.D. ‘00), an engineering consultant in radio propagation and wireless communications, said, “pure communications jobs are not much in demand, but there are plenty of radio and wireless engineering jobs for students who know more than just block diagrams and Matlab.”

Matt Carson (BSEE ‘98) and Michael Mattern (BSEE ‘02) reported demand in interdisciplinary fields. Mattern, a control systems engineer at Cummins, Inc. in Indiana, said that the change to electronic control for engines creates an ongoing need for EEs. Carson earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and does development work for Joe Gibbs Racing. “The NASCAR industry is only now beginning to see the need for EEs as they become more heavily involved in data acquisition,” he said.

Predicting the Next Hot Area

What will be the next “hot” area for ECEs? “Wireless networking is starting to really catch on and is an area of emerging opportunity,” suggested Matthew Valenti (Ph.D. ‘99), an assistant professor at West Virginia University.

Kashan Shaikh (BSCPE ‘02), a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes there is opportunity in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

Nuckols provided a longer list of potential upcoming technologies, including battery technology, fuel cells, electric cars, memory storage (magnetic, solid state) and LCD/CCD sensor technology. “The truth is, there really is no HOT area right now,” he explained. “Now is a time for hard-working engineers to keep plugging away, and maybe sometime soon, a new hot area will just emerge.”

“The glow is clearly gone [from communications],” said McHenry, “and I think that a lot of market factors will have to play out before the next hot area emerges.”

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