Economy and Shortages Affect the European Job Outlook

The bigger high-tech companies in Europe are recruiting EEs. Talent is in short supply, especially for smaller firms looking for very specific skills

8 min read

Despite the painful recession, the job market for electrical and electronics engineers in Europe presents a decidedly mixed picture, as job losses are more than offset by the aging of the technical workforce and a shortage of qualified engineers. The result is a seller’s market for talented technical professionals across Europe, including those just graduating from universities. Unemployment across Europe is only about 3 percent for electrical and electronics engineers, contrasted with an overall rate of about 10 percent in most locales, rising to 20 percent in a few places, like Spain and Latvia.

The need for engineers is especially high in the United Kingdom. ”Just about every type of engineer with two years experience or more will find excellent opportunities,” according to Workgateways UK, a Web site for people from abroad seeking jobs in the UK. ”Within the Mechanical and Electrical engineering discipline, jobs for building services design engineers are in high demand; in particular for commercial, office and institutional (Health, Education) projects in the UK.”

The formation in early 2009 of Intel Labs Europe was a sign of both the strengths and weaknesses of the region’s high-tech job market. With about 900 researchers in more than 20 facilities in Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK, as well as Eastern European locations, Intel is now believed to be the leading semiconductor research company in Europe.

Stephanie Lee, a sourcing specialist for European staffing with Intel, says that research and development head counts have grown slowly despite the recession, especially at Intel. She cautions, however, that this is an exception to what has been a gloomier market. ”In general, the short-term outlook for electronics engineering hiring is limited due to a slowdown in external demand, global economic factors, and lower attrition rates due to a much weakened external labor market,” she says. Lower attrition rates are particularly evident among engineers and other specialists with strong software skills. ”However,” she adds, ”situations vary by country and types of activity.”

But things are picking up. Intel plans to hire mainly graduates and interns, along with some experienced engineers to cover attrition, as well as for its growing R&D activities, and Lee says early business and hiring indicators for 2010 are generally positive in Europe. She says, however, that many of those hires will come from Asia. ”We tend not to hire from the U.S. into Europe as it is too expensive with relocation and related costs,” says Lee. ”Asia seems to be less expensive.”

”There has been a general bounce back in the industry,” says Bill Parsons, executive vice president and a member of the board at UK-based ARM Holdings, which owns the rights to most of the core chip designs used in the fast-growing smartphone and laptop market. ”We’re back in a growth mode.” ARM now has about 100 engineering vacancies, easily more than most high-tech designers and vendors across Europe. These jobs cover more than 15 facilities throughout Europe and include design and application engineers, embedded software engineers, and senior graphics hardware engineers.

ARM is especially eager to find top level engineers for its fast-expanding Sophia Antipolis facility in the south of France, which has become a strategic center for the development of new products. Sophia Antipolis is the company’s main source of global expertise in security and multiprocessing. ARM has been consolidating its work in France and is setting up a new development center dedicated to silicon-on-insulator technologies, in Grenoble, about 300 kilometers away, which combines the expertise of both the Grenoble and Sophia Antipolis teams.

Sophia Antipolis now has more than 40 engineering specialists, and ARM is actively looking to add about a dozen new professional tech specialists to its team in France this year. It expects to employ 100 people at Grenoble and Sophia Antipolis by the end of 2010. ”The wealth of highly skilled engineers attracted to the area, as well as such benefits as easy access to the Nice International Airport and the quality of life, have convinced our top management to invest in the Sophia Antipolis business,” says Pascal Peru, vice president of technology transfer, director general of ARM France, and head of the Sophia Design Center.

Several high-tech companies in Belgium, including Agfa-Gevaert Belgium, Alcatel-Lucent, Belgacom, Cisco Systems, and Nuance Communications International, have only a few engineering slots to fill and these tend to be for very specialized skills.

Smaller companies that are hiring (or thinking about it) are also reporting only a few new job openings, and these are usually for people with very specific skills. For example, BSC Filters, based in York, England, which designs and manufactures microwave filters, diplexers, and waveguide and coaxial passive components, is currently looking for one engineer. ”We operate in a very specialist field and as such look to recruit experienced operators who can hit the ground running,” says Paul Carter, sales and marketing director. ”We also operate a lean facility and recruit accordingly, an example of which is our need for an experienced filter design engineer to support our expanding design engineering team.”

Even at large companies, the opportunities can be smaller than they appear at first glance. Take Geneva-based STMicroelectronics, Europe’s largest chipmaker. The company lists 140 engineering job openings on its Web site. However, only 29 of these positions are in Europe, all of them in France, where it has a number of facilities. It has about 58 openings in India, 16 in Singapore, and a few more in China, Tunisia, and the United States and Canada.

The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, a Dutch defense contractor, has engineering openings in at least five countries—Finland, France, Germany, Spain, and the UK—but they’re generally niche positions, calling for very specific skills. Infineon Technologies is actively seeking only a few engineers for its home facilities in Munich and two test and product engineers in its facilities in Austria. Siemens, the German company that serves multiple markets and industries, currently lists no engineering jobs on its Web site for Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, or Spain, where it has several facilities, but it is looking for at least four product-design and digital-signal-processing consulting engineers in the UK.

In today’s mixed employment climate, the sun can shine even as the rain falls. Rohde & Schwarz, a leading supplier of test and measurement equipment, based in Munich, recently hired 70 young engineering graduates as trainees to do an apprenticeship in electronics. ”We want to give young people the opportunity to gain excellent qualifications,” says Hans Knapek, head of human resources. ”Currently, we are training even more people than we need because our trainees are very much in demand on the job market.” Knapek says the company’s objective is to position itself for the future. All the graduates will receive state-approved certification at the end of their apprenticeships.

A shortage of engineers has been an issue in Europe for years. ”The market is very competitive for highly qualified electronics engineers,” says an HR specialist at BAE Systems, a major defense and aerospace contractor in the UK that is currently looking for more than 25 electrical and electronics engineers for its professional technical staff.

Parson of ARM agrees: ”Yes, there are shortages, and those shortages are going to get worse and worse because of the aging population.” Even more significant, he says, is the declining number of people going to universities and competing for jobs in engineering. In the UK, for example, only half as many high school students go on to university to study electronics as did five years ago. Another issue is talent. ”We may be looking for more engineers, but the reality is that there may only be five that are of the quality that we’re looking for. The gap [in university enrollment] has been filled by people from Asia, mainly China.”

”In terms of a specific skill set, we can safely say that, despite the recession, there is still too little talent available for jobs in analog circuit design, wireless communications, and people with a focus on developing ultralow-power technologies,” says Margot Nijkamp-Diesfeldt, director of human resources at Holst Centre, an R&D organization established in 2005 by Imec in Belgium and the Netherlands with support from the Dutch government.

Nijkamp-Diesfeldt says her organization has had some success attracting people who wish to return to Europe from the United States. ”But we cannot close our eyes to the fact that with the aging of workforces, we will need to replenish with talent from all over the world.”

Computer Simulation Technology (CST), in Darmstadt, Germany, has a similar story. Christian Fritsch, the company’s director of human resources, says, ”As [electromagnetics] simulation specialists, we have for some years now been seeing an ongoing shortage of engineers with qualified training in the area of computer-aided engineering in our sector. We are continually searching for qualified engineers for the development and the worldwide distribution of our software products.”

Crossing international borders for an engineering job is hardly a new phenomenon. Approximately 60 percent of the scientists and engineers currently working in Silicon Valley are foreign born, and according to newly published data by the National Science Foundation, 62 percent of non-U.S. citizens holding temporary visas who earned Ph.Ds in science and engineering at U.S. universities in 2002 were still in the United States in 2007, the last year for which data are available. Overall, though, more and more scientists and engineers have been returning to their home countries; foreign immigration in the United States dropped 34 percent through 2009. Moreover, big companies are not recruiting at overseas universities as actively or aggressively as they would in more normal economic conditions, says Parsons at ARM.

On the plus side for recruiters, European Union legislation now makes it possible for any EU citizen to change jobs easily and start working anywhere within the EU, making cross-border fluctuations in high-tech professionals very visible. ”CST has jumped onto the bandwagon and employs people of 18 different nationalities in Europe,” says Fritsch.

Four EU member states (France, Germany, Italy, and the UK) account for more than half of the highly qualified science and technology population defined as ”professional” by Eurostat, the statistics agency of the EU. The UK hopes to pick up some of the slack through its UK Innovation Investment Fund, which has proposed the creation of a Europe-wide technology fund. If adopted, the proposal could lead to improved opportunities for graduates to work throughout Europe.

Recently published documents by Eurostat say that to remain competitive, the EU needs to spend more on research and development, which contributes to economic growth and job creation. The most recent data collected by Eurostat suggests that the EU is well behind both the United States and Japan in R&D intensity, and Eurostat says the EU needs to close this gap. It also says the EU is likely to fall short of that goal by investing only 3 percent of GDP in research in 2010.

The news isn’t all bad, however. The EU’s research and innovation policy, known as the Seventh Framework Programme 2007–2013, gives space research its own budget, which can be expected to provide some opportunities for new engineering jobs. There’s also the development of Europe’s own next-generation global positioning system. Called Galileo, the project is expected to overrun its initial US $8 billion budget.

New technologies, particularly solar energy, will also lead to new jobs. MRL Technology, a German global technology recruitment consultancy, which has specialized in microelectronics, automotive technologies, and information communication technologies, sees solar as a ”potential jobs boom.” Household European names such as Robert Bosch and Siemens have sought to move into this area through acquisitions rather than by developing expertise from scratch. Germany has been the world’s biggest investor in the solar sector since 2005, and the German government is still heavily subsidizing the industry.

Engineering compensation reportedly remains relatively similar across Europe. Nijkamp-Diesfeldt of Holst Centre agrees, but she says salaries do vary across Europe, Asia, and the United States. ”We see that compensation and benefits are not highest on their list. Building a reputation is very important.”

”It’s not the salaries that are so important,” notes Parsons, ”it’s the quality of the work itself. People want to work on the best projects.”

The number and quality of those projects will, in the end, depend on improvements to the world economy. As Intel’s Lee says, if the global economic output remains positive, this should translate to more growth strategies being adopted and increased hiring for electronics and computer scientists.

A version of this article appeared on the IEEE Job Site earlier this month.

About the Author

Ron Schneiderman is a contributing editor for Electronic Design and Vision magazines and the author of seven books, including Technology Lost—Hype and Reality in the Digital Age. Schneiderman also organizes and moderates the Tech Insider Series of webinars for IEEE Spectrum Online.

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