A sampling of 2017’s hiring and firing announcements show that the year, so far, is a generally good one for software engineers, not so good for their hardware counterparts. And while headline news is incomplete and anecdotal at best, more comprehensive statistics suggest that it represents a trend: software up, hardware down.
Here are layoff and workforce expansion plans made by tech companies so far this year that made the headlines.
In hiring news:
- Uber is hiring like crazy in Pittsburgh; according to Quartz.com, it’s looking for 48 engineers, mostly people to work in artificial intelligence and robotics in its advanced technologies group. Recode reported, however, that some of those are replacements for 20 engineers who recently quit as part of a “mini civil war” in the division.
- Uber competitor Grab has announced plans to hire 800 R&D engineers over the next two years to staff R&D centers in the United States and Asia, mostly working on machine learning, predictive data analytics, user interfaces, and digital payments.
- Didi is hiring self-driving car engineers for its new Mountain View lab, expecting to have “dozens” of researchers working at that facility, focused on AI security and intelligent driving techniques. First, however, the company is looking to hire a technical recruiter.
- Ford picked up 400 engineers—300 in Canada and 100 in the United States—to work on connected and autonomous cars. It doesn’t need to find these engineers in the wild, however, its picking them up from Blackberry.
- Baidu announced in March that it plans to double its Sunnyvale R&D workforce, adding 150 engineers to its AI efforts.
- Amazon in March announced that it will add 1300 jobs at East Palo Alto. A report by city staff indicated that the Amazon employees will be “primarily engaged in software programming and development.” That followed on an announcement that the company will hire 5000 for a wide range of technology development positions in the United Kingdom.
- GE Healthcare in March announced that the company will hire 5000 software engineers by 2018, working mainly on analytics, cloud-based imaging, population health, and machine learning.
- Bosch announced that it will hire 3000 engineers in India, mostly new graduates in software, IT, analytics, and other technologies.
- And Indian outsourcing company Infosys announced that it will be hiring up to 10,000 technology professionals in the United States over the next two years, starting with recruiting 100 for a new office in Indianapolis.
In layoff news:
- Oracle early this year launched a layoff of perhaps as many as 1800 engineers, mostly from operations with roots in its acquisition of Sun Microsystems.
- Boeing cut 1332 engineering and technical jobs from its workforce so far this year, according to the union representing its engineers, with 300 more taking buyouts.
- Western Digital in April announced that it will lay off a total of 182 employees at two California facilities.
- Juniper Networks announced a layoff of about 6 percent of its workforce—about 570 people—in March, denying reports of a 9 percent cut.
- Pandora announced early this year that it is cutting 7 percent of its workforce—or 155 employees.
- GoPro in March announced plans to cut 270 jobs, following an announcement of 200 job cuts late last year.
- Little flying camera maker Lily crashed this year, leaving about 40 without jobs and pre-order customers clamoring for refunds.
Companies both hiring and firing:
- According to its 2016 annual report, IBM ended the year with a workforce of 380,000. That’s up slightly from 377,757 at the end of 2015. And the company announced late last year that it will hire 7000 employees in the United States this year. But IBM has also been steadily laying off tech workers around the world throughout last year and into this year, continuing an effort the company calls workforce rebalancing.
- Microsoft has also been churning employees, with 700 cut early this year as part of a 2016 announcement of 2850 in cuts, but the company is also hiring, aiming to sell software by subscription instead of for installation on computers.
What does this all mean? Generally, according to Daniel Culbertson, an economist with job search firm Indeed, it reflects a general trend towards software engineering and away from hardware engineering.
Culbertson pointed me to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, where software engineering jobs show up in the “computer/mathematical” category and more traditional electrical engineering and other hardware engineering jobs show up in the “architect/engineer” category. In 2014, he noted, there were far more people employed in that computer category—4.06 million compared with 2.5 million in that engineer category. And by 2024 the gap will widen, with the computer category projected to grow by 13 percent and the engineer category by 2.7 percent. “The only occupations expected to grow slower [than architect/engineer] are farming, production, and office and administrative support,” he notes, “all occupations likely to be impacted by automation.”
Drilling down a little further into the BLS data to look at software developers and programmers and computer hardware engineers, he notes that there are today about 1.6 million software developer and programmer jobs in the United States. That number is projected to grow by 12.5 percent through 2024. Meanwhile, he says, there are already fewer computer hardware engineer jobs, and the BLS only projects that category to grow by 3.1 percent through 2024.
“This is a trend we see in our data as well,” Culbertson said, noting that in the first quarter of 2017 Indeed posted 3.1 times as many jobs for software developers as for other kinds of engineers.
Culbertson also noted that the announcements of companies planning a hiring push to find people with expertise in artificial intelligence is also part of a trend; job postings on Indeed.com for AI positions nearly doubled year-over-year since April of last year.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.