EE Job Market Brightens

Though hiring remains focused, there's more of it

After he was laid off last May, circuit design engineer Michael Hyams thought things weren't looking too bad. He was getting multiple 3-hour interviews—longer than most that had led to job offers during his 30 years in Silicon Valley. But after five of these marathon sessions with a handful of companies didn't pan out, he says, "I was getting worried. It was hard to go through the whole interview process and not get an offer."

PHOTO: JASON MADARA

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After a lengthy job search, Michael Hyams is reaping the benefits of an improving job market for engineers.

He finally snared a job as a member of the technical staff at Magma Design Automation Inc., in Santa Clara, Calif., in July. He won't be one of the newest Magma engineers for long. The electronic design automation house plans to double its staff from 500 to around 1000 by next fall. "Today we've got more than 100 requests out there, and we've hired 150 people in the last five months," says Susan Welch, global staffing manager at Magma.

Hyams's experience reflects what many job hunters are finding: the engineering job market is coming back from the depths of the tech wreck, particularly in certain areas. "Semiconductors are coming on strong, with a lot of activity in wireless technologies," says Michael J. Buryk, recruitment business development manager at IEEE Media in New York City. Hiring is also picking up in Michael Hyams's specialty, electronic design automation, as well as in military and security technologies, and in emerging areas like nanotechnology.

Though hiring may be up, observers note that the climb starts from a low point. The U.S. jobless rates for electrical engineers and computer scientists have been higher than the national jobless rate for much of the last year. "I think we finally hit bottom after seeing declining employment levels over the last decade," says David Napier, research director at the Aerospace Industry Association in Arlington, Va. "Our forecast is for increasing employment." But even as employers add staff, they are being extra cautious, thoroughly vetting job applicants before making an offer.

Electronic Design Automation (EDA), a US $4 billion industry devoted to developing computer tools used to design electronics components, is among the hot areas for hiring right now. "We're a small company, with under 100 people, but we're adding about 20 percent this year," says Keith Neve, director of human resources at Denali Software Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., which specializes in EDA for memory chips.

The upturn in EDA hiring is closely linked to the industry that uses these development programs, namely semiconductors. "Chip design is hot in the U.S.," says Brian Baxter, staffing intelligence manager for Intel Corp.'s Global Staffing group in Santa Clara, Calif. "We're looking for chip designers with ASIC [application-specific integrated circuit], circuit design, and hardware design skills."

Chip designers are also in demand at Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc. "We've got about 250 openings for engineers on a monthly basis," says Pam Ferrell, TI's hiring manager. "The bulk of our hiring is in broadband, especially cable modems and VoIP [voice over Internet Protocol]. The wireless group is also hiring—cellular technology represents a tremendous opportunity."

Emerging Technologies are also showing signs of growth. "Nanotechnology is starting to pick up steam. It will offer a lot of opportunities for EEs," predicts Scott Sargis, president of Strategic Search Corp., a Chicago-based recruitment firm specializing in placing scientists and engineers.

Engineers interested in working in nanotech will need broad skills, industry experts say. Companies often won't advertise for an electrical engineer, "but rather, someone who understands the merger of electronics and optical, or electronics and biotech," says Neil Gordon, president of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance in Toronto. EEs will compete for those jobs with chemists, physicists, and others, he adds.

Nanotechnology is starting to pick up steam. It will offer a lot of opportunities for EEs

Engineers experienced in basic research probably have an edge. "There's a lot of [nanotechnology] activity in government labs, and a lot of the $3.7 billion from the U.S. government is going to academic work and some corporate work," notes Scott Mize, president of the Foresight Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif., not-for-profit that promotes nanotechnology.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government's ongoing military operations continue to create job openings, particularly for those with security clearances. "Defense is definitely picking up after declining in the past," says John Rosica, president of Management Recruiters International Inc., in San Jose, Calif. "There's a lot of activity in Colorado, for example, where Lockheed is working on its Joint Strike Fighter contract. I've also seen a good peppering of opportunities in Silicon Valley and Southern California."

Though the clouds are lifting, engineers won't soon forget the pain of massive layoffs. They're much less eager these days to tie their fortunes to their companies, and stock options are no longer the pulse-raising topic during job interviews. "They're asking about the stability of the company and whether they'll be employed in three years, not how fast they will become millionaires," says Denali's Neve. Prospective employees are also a lot less demanding, he says. "A couple years ago, people wanted to work on leading-edge stuff. Now they're happy to code in C."

Hiring is increasing outside the United States as well. "Our Asian organizations are growing, especially in China and India. Europe is also growing," says TI's Ferrell. Intel is also hiring in India. "Part of our international recruiting team is based in Bangalore," Baxter notes, adding that the company has quite a few job openings in Malaysia. Intel tends to seek specific technologists in different geographic regions. "In the United States, Israel, and Mexico, mixed signal [technology] is a big area. India is a place where ASIC skills are clamored for," Baxter says.

Even small companies like Denali are taking advantage of the globalization of the engineering workforce. Most of Denali's hiring is in Palo Alto and Austin, says Neve, but the company does hire in Bangalore as well.

Not all areas of the job market are rebounding. Newly hired Hyams noted that the previously lucrative contract engineering field has been hit particularly hard in Silicon Valley and shows scant signs of recovery. "As a contractor, I used to make four times the money I could as an employee. That's really changed. Companies just aren't hiring contractors," the engineer says.

Many hiring managers add that hiring is still focused. Hyams's new company, for example, may be doubling its staff size, but many of the hires will be application engineers who have master's degrees in computer science or electrical engineering and some sales training. Magma is also interested in software developers with Ph.D.s.

While some companies seek seasoned engineers with specific skills, others like to mold employees to their requirements. National Instruments Corp. typically hires new grads, while recruiting a fairly small percentage of senior employees. "We like to hire general-purpose talent and bring them into our system," says Mark Finger, vice president of human resources at the Austin, Texas, instrument maker.

As increased hiring shrinks the pool of skilled candidates, other companies are looking at hiring new graduates as a way to build their talent base while remaining frugal. "This is the first year we've gone out to do on-campus recruiting," says Denali's Neve.

The students that National Instruments now interviews are getting more job offers, Finger notes. During the industry downturn, the company had been "selecting candidates, not recruiting them," he says. "That's starting to change."

Overall, U.S. companies plan to hire 13 percent more new college grads this year than last year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in Bethlehem, Pa. Intel's Baxter notes that about a third of its hires are new college grads, while Ferrell says 10 to 20 percent of TI's hiring is from universities.

There's at least one downside to the hiring uptick. In Silicon Valley, Hyams has noticed a definite pickup in rush-hour traffic. "I used to get to work pretty quickly," he says. "Now it takes an hour and a half."

About the Author

Freelance writer TERRY COSTLOW covers the technological and societal impact of the electronics industry. He has written for EE Times, Electronic Design, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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