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DECEMBER 2014     


career focus
Circuits & Systems

By John R. Platt

Here's a snapshot for you: On 1 December of this year, more than 8,800 circuit design engineer jobs were listed on Monster.com and 3,300 advanced circuits jobs listed on indeed.com, along with 4,700 test engineer jobs, 2,500 digital signal processing jobs, 3,700 computer-aided design jobs and...

Okay, you get the idea. There are a lot of jobs out there for people with the right skills in circuits and systems.

"That's contrary to the popular belief that there are no jobs," says Vojin G. Oklobdzija, IEEE Life Fellow and president of the IEEE Circuits and Systems Society (CAS). "Good people are in demand."

It's easy to see why. Not too long ago the main application for circuits was in computers. Now they exist in almost everything. "Circuits and systems basically spans all of electrical engineering," Oklobdzija says. "I like to think of the integrated circuit as the basic fabric for computation for anything," says Jacob Abraham, IEEE Fellow and the Cockrell Family Regents Chair in Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. That includes applications ranging from wearable devices to smart cars to medical robotics and whatever is on the horizon.

Supply and Demand

Despite the constant need, the right employees can be extremely hard to find, says Oklobdzija. "These projects are extremely complex," he says. "You simply need people with good skills and years of experience to handle it." A project he worked on last year required hiring hundreds of people. Finding candidates with the right skillsets was difficult. "You need to give yourself a year to hire people and build your team."

In order for employees to get those necessary skills, they must invest time in focused education. "A lot of the companies that are hiring chip designers now want master's degrees," Abraham says. "That's the point where they are ready to start working immediately and contributing to a group when they join a company."

Oklobdzija says the required knowledge base begins with a solid understanding of fundamentals such as mathematics and physics. Abraham adds that people working on integrated circuits require knowledge of both software and hardware. "Someone who knows both hardware and software would be able to make a lot more contributions than otherwise," he says.

Abraham says the demand for employees is so big that many of his students have job offers before they graduate. "Students don't seem to have any trouble getting jobs in design or verification or test, anything related to integrated circuits," he says.

Of course, not every student has the right skillset. "If you look at students from the top ten schools, where they have good quality, rigorous programs, they come out sharp and well-educated," Oklobdzija says. "They have no problem finding jobs." That might not be the case with other schools lower on the list. "People are interviewing for very specific, very narrow skills," he says. "The students fresh out of school don't necessarily have those."

In Demand, Under-Utilized?

One odd aspect of this demand for skilled employees, Oklobdzija says, is that some of the top employers are hiring more people than they need so they have them when they do need them. "They realize that when you need to boost a project you can't spend a year hiring," he says. "They are basically keeping them in reserve." These employees may not be fully utilized year-round, but they are ready when the right project hits.

This has actually contributed to the difficulty in finding employees, Oklobdzija says. "This has created sort of a vacuum." He points out that this is another indication of the need for skilled employees.

Offshoring Threat (and Opportunities)

As you might expect, offshoring has had a major effect on this industry. "Manufacturing jobs have been taken by China," Oklobdzija says. "Now design is being taken away by India. What you could pay one person here we're paying five people in India. The quality of those five people is not as good, but it is improving."

Many of the jobs that remain in the U.S. require the best employees. "There are still opportunities, but they are for people with highly tuned skill and experience," he says.

That won't change any time soon, especially as more advanced interdisciplinary applications such as those in the biomedical area emerge. "You're talking about the fringes or the margins of electrical engineering," Oklobdzija says. "That's where the next opportunities and challenges are. I don't think those jobs will be offshored. That cutting-edge development is here."

Abraham agrees, and sees that this future is already ready for today's job candidates. "I see driverless cars, robots and medical applications as potential areas where people can get jobs," he says. Meanwhile, the capabilities of today's systems must constantly improve to increase processing power, improve power usage and further reduce size.

Even as what Abraham calls "new paradigms" emerge, the same skills will be required. "The applications will change, the technology will change, but the basic fundamentals don't change very much," he says. "You're still doing basic computations and processing of signals. That makes this a potentially very good field to be in."

 

 

Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.

 

John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

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