A Wal-Mart Future? - Embedded.com

A Wal-Mart Future?

Though much of the economy has rebounded since the dot-com crash, and though there are engineers being hired now, I’m still flooded with tales of woe from developers unsuccessfully searching for work. Here’s an email from a correspondent who wishes to remain anonymous:

“There seems to be a great discrepancy between “official” numbers and the truth. I worked as a software engineer/embedded developer for several years, but I can't buy a job right now.

”I was laid off from my job working for Lockheed at the Kennedy Space Center in 2002. I have been unemployed since then, despite working my behind off looking for a job. The state government here in Florida constantly shouts ‘Florida has low unemployment!! There are plenty of jobs!!!’ When we were laid off, the state sent ‘employment counselors’ to help us. They told us that the only jobs were at Wal-Mart, and that we ought to be glad that if we could get a job there. They browbeat us to death with ‘Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart…’

“The representatives of the state of Florida told us bluntly that engineering jobs were NOT for Americans. We were told bluntly: ‘it’s a global economy, and engineering jobs are going overseas. That is part of globalization. You must accept this. Your career is over. Americans are going to have to accept low-wage jobs, because that is the result of globalization. Wal-Mart is the only place that is hiring and you need to work there.’

”Oh, I've been offered jobs. I've been offered jobs in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Korea. I have also been offered jobs in embedded development — but to keep the job, I would have to sleep with a cell phone to provide 24×7 customer support. I also would have had to travel on 2 hours' notice, both internationally and domestically, to provide on-site support. I turned all of those jobs down. I've been mocked, yelled at, and cursed at. In an interview earlier this year, a female engineer stood up and screamed at me, saying ‘If you won't work in Iraq for us, you don't deserve to have a job!!!!’

”The IEEE recently published a nice graph that shows a massive decline in the number of EE jobs in the US. [See http://www.todaysengineer.org/2005/Sep/pulse.asp]

”My opinion? The current administration has promoted policies that have driven engineering jobs offshore. They've wrecked the economy, and the federal and state governments are lying about it. The job market is horrible. Unless you want to work overseas, or provide customer support (on-call, global travel) then you are in big trouble. If you have a decent job, you better hang on, because if you lose it, you will never work again. The truth is that the job market is horrible, and the number of jobs in the US is declining, thanks to a bad economy, greedy CEOs, the offshoring of manufacturing, and now the offshoring of engineering and software development work.

”If you have any thoughts you would like to share, please reply. Oh, I do know a former Lucent MTS who now works at the local Wal-Mart, wearing a blue vest.”


I don’t know the writer personally, so it’s possible his frustration has boiled over to some level of exaggeration. But too many others write, perhaps somewhat less eloquently, with similar stories.

Are engineering jobs really so scarce? Is a $8/hour Wal-Mart job our destiny? What do you think?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .

I’ve loved your column for years. I work in PA and NJ. I used to pick and choose and be able to work 10 minutes from home at a good rate. I have seen countless embedded comrades drop out of engineering to become teachers, early retirees, dead, real estate agents, IT people, product support, salesmen, etc. I figure about half the people I knew in 1995 in embedded are now out. One fellow I knew who at one time made 80/hr had to pizza for a spell – he was lucky to land a job: usually once you are out more than 6 months, you are done period. Right now, about 5 personal friends are looking for work – I have no advice for them. I have seen many strong engineering companies in my area go under. Many of my friends have been their jobs are targeted for off-shore. I can accept my job just going away, but why do I have to hear talking heads in the media claim there aren’t enough American Engineers? There aren’t enough American companies looking for people. It’s long past companies just dropping dead wood – Right now, the Ewing NJ JDSU building I work in is actually very active . . . . packing up equipment to send to Asia before we shut down this year.

Eric Krieg

There are engineering jobs out there, but the engineer you were talkingabout might have to move and may have to change his field a little. Altelis hiring here in Little Rock area. I have gone to Dice and have foundquite a few jobs listed. You just have to broaden your outlook.

– Anonymous

I can see why this person wishes to remain anonymous. It never ceases to amaze me with the number of people that render themselves unemployable, regardless of their profession.

On my last job I was part of the hiring team and I would nearly leave in a depression after each face-to-face interview. These were people that passed the phone interview, but still wouldn’t be able to sell water to the dehydrated, let alone sell themselves to a prospective employer.

Sadly, one of the weakest skills we are taught is how to sell “our self” and how to be “employable”. No matter how vast your domain knowledge reservoir, you will never succeed in the job market unless you first learn how to present yourself and second, learn how to be employable. Even more fundamental, you need to have the will to work.

If you fail at these basic skills you are doomed to be a social anchor and we all know what direction anchors go.

– Marv Debeque

I have enjoyed your column for years now. I too was laid off from KSC in ’02, simultaneously with 500+ others. We were given 3 months notice. As many of us remember, the job “fishing” was not very good back then. Many of us who love the Space Coast ended up moving to TX or AZ. Thankfully I did not. But I did have to scramble. I had to determine what the market was buying and get some of that. Embedded Linux was (and is) the hot thing then so I dusted off my coffee pot and returned to College Cram mode for many months. And I found an embedded systems job that I truly love. I now “sleep with a cell phone”, but it seldom rings. It is not uncommon for me to need to fly to Canada or Brazil for first-article-inspections or for other technical assistance. This is difficult as the single parent of 3 energetic children, but I have developed and utilize my personal network. But I want you to know that if I’d had to I’d have taken a job with Wal-Mart stocking shelves from 10-4 plus 1 or 2 other jobs while continuing to conduct my job search. I would have adapted to the market rather than expecting the market to adapt to me.

– Keith H

I always enjoy your columns. This particular article (A Wal Mart Future) threw me back to a book I read many years ago, by Lester Thurow MIT economist, called “Head to Head”. He said that for the first time in history the U.S. will be competing economically “Head to Head” with the rest of the world in the 21st century. Previously we have all been handling niche markets with the U.S. having a lock on the high tech, high wage markets. We destroyed the German and Japanese competitiveness in WWII.

He said that the countries whose expertise lied in manufacturing engineering as opposed to new product engineering would rule the day, and he believed that the only way to stay on top was to improve our education system. His comment on the U.S. having 15,000 DIFFERENT school boards still rings around in my head.

He said that the inability to compete would manifest itself not in unemployment necessarily, but in a plethora of low tech, low wage jobs.

The story that I liked from the book was the one about the head of Sony going to a new products convention in Hawaii before Sony existed. He sat down and ordered a drink. When the drink came, it came with a paper umbrella marked “Made in Japan”. This infuriated him to see the Japanese making paper umbrellas while the rest of the world was accomplishing great things. Thus Sony was started.

Japan pulled themselves up in ranks of the world economy without the help of exploiting natural resources. We might have to face a similar challenge.

I am an embedded engineer, and I worry about this for myself and for my 3 sons (none of them is named “Chip”). High wages are paid for services that are in high demand but low supply. I don't know what the answer is, but it might merit another look at Lester's analysis.

– Marc Bunyard

Unemployment has nothing to do with the administration, it has to do with $9,000 for an year Engineer in India or a $80,000 ME here. But short term savings is what will be the demise of our country. Not enough optimists…Pessimistic Politics. There is no reason a good thinking person is unemployed here. Just change direction or specialties. Can't program who cares, Invent. Start a business. Sell yourself don't blame others.

– Steve

I'm a software engineer with 11 years of experience. In March 2005, I left a fine job at a growing, promising start-up company in Santa Clara, CA to relocate my family to Arizona where I could raise my 4 children closer to their grandparents and other extended family. Because I'm well informed on current events, I was a bit nervous at this decision due to many folks claiming that the economy was in the dumps and engineering jobs are all going oversees. My recent job-hunting experience rebuts these folks — especially the former Lockheed employee you quoted in “A Wal-Mart Future?”

I started my job hunt in February 2005. Within 6 weeks, I completed 11 phone interviews, 3 on-site interviews (i.e., companies flew me to AZ from CA), and I had 2 offers in hand. I turned down more requests for phone interviews because I was going to accept one of the offers. After considering cost-of-living adjustments between Silicon Valley and Phoenix, I was getting a nice raise in salary. Since starting this job in March 2005, I've received 2 additional, unsolicited employment offers. This economy is not in the dumps.

I don't consider myself a super-man engineer. However, I deliver quality software on time. My resume is well-crafted, modest, and honest. My main weakness is my narrow experience. Even still, I found a job, albeit after 6-weeks of hard searching. As the sole breadwinner for a wife and 4 young children, I was motivated.

My current team has 4 software engineers. Two of us are carrying the entire project while the other two are not qualified and actually impede progress. (It feels like a school project again.) I ask myself: if these two jokers can land a good-paying engineering job, why can't this former Lockheed employee?

Mr. Former Lockheed undermines his case when he blames federal and state politicians and greedy CEOs for his woes. Your suspicions are correct, Jack. He's exaggerating. Sure, our free market is not perfectly fair, but I believe and observe that it *is* largely fair in rewarding people for their true value.

– Anonymous

I'd like to make one observation. As a manager of software development projects and having been involved in several start-up companies, I can tell you that it is not the cost of salaries and benefits of engineers that is the expensive part of developing a product. The really expensive items are schedule delays and bugs. It has been extensively documented that poor communication leads to both. I can't think of a better way to introduce communication problems than to site the engineering team remotely – or worse, have part of the engineering team remote. Frankly, it doesn't matter if the engineers are in the next city or on the other side of the globe. If everyone involved can't get in front of a whiteboard together, you are going to have problems – count on it.

The average embedded system project has about 12 software engineers on it and takes about a year. Let's say that the developers here in the expensive U.S. cost $150K (including office space, benefits, and other overhead) – that's $1.8 million. And let's further assume that you can get a group of talented software engineers in Pakistan for $15K each – that's $180K. Your average bean counter has started to salivate at this point. This project is going after a small market – say $12 million annually. Even in such a small market, a 2 month slip in the project's completion will cost the company more money in lost revenue than they will spend in software development – anywhere in the world. Take that, Mr. Bean Counter.

Bugs are harder to quantify, but they are much more expensive. You're not just losing revenue for a short period of time, but you are losing the revenue from a customer (and all of the other potential customers that they talk to) for the entire life of the product. It's not that Pakistani engineers are less capable than their U.S. counterparts – but being remote from the definition of the product, they will miss things. And that will cost you customers. I've actually had a manager counter this argument by saying that he could hire 36 engineers in Pakistan instead of the 12 in the U.S. and get the project out sooner. Anyone who thinks that putting 3 times the number of engineers on a project will result in a shorter schedule doesn't really understand software development.

One big problem is that the costs of bugs and schedule slips cannot be predetermined and put into a spreadsheet. So bean counters and inexperienced managers can't consider them when the project is set up.

We can take some small consolation in the fact that the managers that do not have cahones to stand up to the bean counters and the tide of the “conventional wisdom” of outsourcing will soon be sporting a nice blue vest, too.

– Anonymous

We have struggled to fill embedded software engineering openings with qualified candidates. I don’t believe our acceptance bar is too high, nor our pay so out of line; that either would be in impediment. Our typical search has lasted six months from start to accepted candidate.

Admitted we are filling one or two positions per year. This does not effect government unemployment figures, but it makes a difference to one or two people per year. (It also makes a difference to the four or five of us that are carrying the load for unfilled positions.)

Milwaukee may not be a destination for software engineers. This would have impact on our ability to hire. Nor is our industry something that the high-tech engineer would look at. GE, Rockwell and Johnson Controls certainly have better name recognition.

– Anonymous

Yes jobs are going away. The employment future of Electrical Engineers and many other types of Engineers look abysmal. We are adults and educated so we know screeching and yelling, will do nothing to change things. Changing to another type work will not solve the problem, they will off shore it. BUT accountants, politicians and business people can be corralled. Instead of looking for employment, we need to do as our brethren of “Old” did. Look at the world, find a problem and really crank down hard and create a solution. I know there will be the standard “Nay Sayers” who will point at companies and colleges that are already doing this and have the monetary where with all to apply “Legal Terrorism”, known as the threat of dragging you off to court, to kill anything you do, but let's wait a minute. If a lot of us go after simple but needed items, eventually there will be companies that are owned and run by engineers. They will hire engineers.

Now let's see what we might design: Hmmm What about a way to do accounting without needing accountants? Surely this can be done via computers. Set up standards, put in place law and then computerize it. Major positive would be less error and less “creative accounting”.

What about a way to manage a company without the need for upper management? We already have flow chart programs. All management does is read them to us. We could do that ourselves. I am certain this could also be applied to HR. I mean, what is the difference between a Computer and a cold uncaring HR person. One is logical and repeatable the other is selfish and useless.

What about a way to computerize legal processes so we don't need so many lawyers or judges? Hmmm. Maybe we better leave this solution alone. We need the lawyers to get the accountants to create standards.

What about a way to do Marketing? Oh! That will be easy! We just go to Wal-Mart and watch what all the ex-managers and ex-accountants do and what they need to do their job better for the Walton family.

I know some of these items sound crazy, but 50 years ago off shoring manufacturing to the level it is today was only considered possible by management and accounting dreamers. And we, electrical engineers figured out a way to do it. So maybe turn about would not only be fair play, but possible and profitable.

– Paul A. Lowe

I am also unemployed, but employable embedded engineer. I turned 48, in August.

The writer demonstrates perhaps a typical philosophical difference in an attitude:

– Do we live in a world of abundance or scarcity?
– Is life a playground or battlefield?

The choice is ours.

I was laid-off in 2001 (two weeks before 9/11), and I went through a major family crises shortly after (both parents passed away in a span of three months). I decided to go back to Czech republic to attend to this family matter (I grew up there, before escaping then-Communist country). While living there, I got a job; me being bi-lingual helped.

I can validate your salary level survey for Eastern Europe, from my first hand experience. I worked for $1,000/month gross; after taxes I netted about $750/month. Oh, yes, I commuted (walk/train/walk) in winter time two hours one way to my work. I used to wake up at 5 AM to be by 7:30 at my office. Distance traveled by train = 17 miles. Yes, Jack. It is 21st century.

After the snow melted away I used a car, paying $4.50/gal (now probably higher), for a thirty-minute work commute. Time = money, sometimes.

Unpaid OTs are universal phenomenon. Paraphrasing Einstein, stupidity is perhaps infinite, while the universe might not be..

I do not wish to say more about my two-year long European adventure. I learned more about life and technology that I could imagine. And that is what counts, for me.

Of course, I was doing what I'd trained for and what I still enjoy – embedded systems, this time in a private German-owned company. I could write pages about this experience; what it is like being an American EE in Europe, in the Czech republic, Germany. But I won't, for my subjectivity would be self-serving.

Recently, I drove on and around Mission Blvd in Santa Clara; I saw perhaps 30-40 empty buildings for every one still occupied (HP, Exar, Seagate). Big signs on empty parking lots “For Lease”. Yes, I read about this China-India “boomtown”, but when one sees the empty buildings, it gives it a touch of reality – this is not temporary.

At the end of August Wal-Mart opened a new store in Oakland, CA . For 400 available positions, guess how many people applied? That's right, 11,000 applicants. For $10.80/hr job.

In June, 2005, I have returned for good. I cannot live in Europe, I prefer to live and work here, in California, where I've lived half of my life.

I refuse to believe the scarcity-fiction. And I refuse to sell my soul to anything but playfulness (involving ARM uC preferably)

I could not resist giving my $0.02 worth to that $64,000 question – is an EE good for Wal-mart's blue vest?

This EE shouts: Hell no!

It's coming whether you like it or not. We're all on a slowly sinking ship and we need to save ourselves while we can.

I am a Canadian who had worked in US for 7 years and 1 month before coming back to Canada in late 2003. Yes, I am gainfully employed at a much lower salary (& much much lesser buying power). There were about 90% lay-off at the group I worked in my previous job at Delphi in Indiana. A few years back, Delphi was training dozens of Indian engineers and exporting engineering jobs to Bangalore. They have already exported some manufacturing jobs to Mexica then. The problem is nothing to do with laziness of North American engineers, but much to do with global monetary structure. Historically, N American currency was over-priced compared to third world countries'. That was reasonalbe at a time (30 years ago) when those 3rd World countries were technologically lower. But now it's proven that the best technologically advanced products can be made cheaper with equal or better workmanship in Far East instead of N.A. it's no wonder N.A. jobs are disappearing. Canada has an advantage that engineers are paid less and there's much less benefit costs due to government health care. But as history has taught us this: North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) lowered Canadian living standard since Canada signed NAFTA with US; American living standard suffered when Mexico joined NAFTA.

Americans (and Canadians) will keep on losing good jobs, but to lessen the impact, we should first swallow bitter pills:

0. Don't lose hope; We in N. America live in some of the richest lands on earth; we have enough food to feed all of us, vast space to live (and trash), and plenty of clothing (Food shelter and clothing are all we need to really survive); We don't really need foreign trade to survive–big corporations make us believe we do, because they make the most easy money from trade.
1. Devalue our currencies substantially to curb unnecessary imports.
2. Trade services (food for engineering services) without using currency.
3. Promote social justice around the world (rich-poor gap)
4. Cut down on impulsive short sighted military operations which sucks out national treasury; the money could have been used to feed us, re-train us, and invest in better technologies to regain the American advantage, etc.
5. Insist on environmentally sound and ethical working conditions in 3rd World.
6. Set up engineering co-operatives to create jobs among us and share the fruits if our labor.
7. Don't waste food or energy; All the most efficient cities in the world (NY, Tokyo, London, Toronto) have good public transit systems such as subways. Pie throwing fights and McDonald's throwing expired food out are big insults culturally in Far East where food is truly valued. Car rental co-operatives make good economic and environmental sense.
8. Invest on existing microbiological/botanical clean water reclamation technologies (look at public TV archives).
9. Invest on energy conservation at home and at work using simple and existing methods.
10. Learn from 3rd World on how to live more efficiently. e.g. GM trained dent repair men in Thailand (6 month course) where technology is much more advanced and cheaper than N.A.
11. Learn to accept lower paying jobs. I moved back to Canada by losing a golden handshake lay-off (close to US$10,000) and to take a much lesser pay job. I believe it's better than no job at all. My first job after BSChem and BSEE in Winnipeg was a cashier at Petro Canada selling cigarettes and gas. I also tutored rich Taiwanes immigrant kids in high schools.
12. When I first arrived in N. America, I thought US & Cdn dollars are highly over-priced (all immigrants know that and we had a hard time buying anything at first). Now it's easier to buy things but our dollars are stilll over-priced more so than before, since they can make things better cheaper. We can never compete with 3rd World on wages; they have no benefits, no environmentally sound work place, and their people will work for peanuts just to survive on food.
13. Learn to question politicians, American news media, and big corporations, whether they are telling the truth; Is the reason truthful to go to war? Is the company declaring bankruptcy just to avoid paying pension? BBC or CBC tell much different news than ABC or CBS.14. Study and learn European semi-government health care and welfare systems; don't simply copy Canadian socialist health care system which is no longer functional (too much waste and abuse).
15. Accept the reality of necessary cheaper transportation suystem (passenger trains, car-pooling, bio-diesel, ethanol fuel, etc.)
16. 2-year diploma in Electrical Engineering Technology cna make over $100,000 at Ontario Hydro now, much more than an engineer's income in Canada. US/Canada discourage people to study science and engineering but the richest emerging countries in the world have the most progressive encouraging engineering graduates and jobs.

– Patrick Wong

When one engineer lands a job, he/she says “the sky is NOT falling!”

When the others who do NOT find jobs because we have been lied to, sold out, and stepped on by lying lairs and the liars that lie them (read: politicians from Ted BullFrog Kennedy to Little Boy Bush—party makes no difference), and magazines and books are written by MBAs with the intellect of ameoba and the soul of the devil that tout this “global econonomy”, the folks who say “yes, the sky IS falling” on their jobs and their lives SPEAK THE TRUTH.

I have had the pleasure of working with the Chinese as they carted off our jobs and stole secrects from our company for a Chinese company that I will not mention.

We are in serious trouble. The ENEMY is beating us at our own game because we are too politically correct to OPEN OUR EYES and SEE things AS THEY ARE!

WalMart was mentioned in this thread. WalMart mihgt as well be renamed the PRC Merchantile and we are the idiots that buy this cheap crap instead of American!

– Craig Wolverton

I don't think the author of the “Wal-Mart” article is too far off the mark! Our government has forced many businesses to go off shore for talent, just to stay out of the Red. I do blame the CEO's and the government for killing our own.

– S King

Part of it is also that high-tech is becoming a “mature” technology. Its not that America does not need and will not need exceptional engineers, its just that we will not need the hordes of them that were needed during the infancy of the information age. The technology has matured to a point where it makes sense to farm off non-core development. I think smart companies realize this. They are not sourcing away key technologies that give America the “edge”, they are sourcing away development tasks are not bleeding edge but that non the less cost a lot of money to develop in America.

– Sylvin

I must say that my 25 years or so in industry has taught me a lot of cynicism. It has taught me a lot about the industry too. I refer to primarily the Aerospace world, but I did work in the industrial electronics side of the industry for about 5 years building hybrids for pressure transducers.

To bare my cynicism, let me say that the comments you referenced read more like a political statement than anything else. If ANYONE made statements like those claimed, I would have raised a big red flag. The supposed statements by Florida officials are highly inflammatory and are certainly not professional. Beside that they are most certainly false.

My dad was laid off after 6 months of charging overhead — he knew it was inevitable. There was just no new work coming in. He was laid off on a Friday and by Saturday, noon, he had three job offers. He only sent out resumes as a formality. Two of the three required a move to the Bay area and the third was a miserable drive into Orange County. He opted for one of the Bay area jobs. One minor point: my dad has no degree…At the time he did have ~30 years of experience in the semiconductor industry. He was a “Cook”. He was also good at what he did.

A friend of mine was a photographer and photo lab technician at a local, large, Aerospace Company. He came to work one morning and saw a crowd leaving — several thousand had just been laid off. Boom, just like that. While he did not get the axe, he decided he had enough of the industry — he quit. He then opened a garage photo processing lab. In Los Angeles, spittin' distance to Hollywood and incredible competition. He made $30K PROFIT his first tax year. That's after paying off all his equipment and monthly mortgage payments. This guy does have a degree, and he is no stranger to hard work. He too, is good at what he does.

I could walk into a consulting job, anytime, doing embedded design at one company I know. I was offered a full time position but was too chicken to go (risk and a family don't mix well.) Well the guy that wanted to hire me is now a VP and I could be in his directors job. Oh, I have a BSEEE and my specialty is ANALOG and Power ANALOG design. How could I wrangle an embedded job? I'm not brash enough to say I'm that good. In fact, I know several people that are way better at digital design, embedded design and coding than I am. What I bring to the table is breadth of experience. Not only can I see ones and zeros, but I can see the continuum between them. They need someone that can work, not just think, out of the box.

I fear that the person that sent you the rant in either no good, or perhaps really good, but far too narrow. It is easier to excel if you only do one thing, but unless someone needs that one thing, go fish. If you can't be flexible, you might as well dig ditches.

My recommendation is that the guy out of work for two years should try on the Orange Apron or Blue Vest and seriously consider his options. Get the experience, grow his knowledge base or get out. I know several people laid off in the 70's Aerospace dive that did way better in other areas than they ever could have in engineering. The difference between them and the person you wrote about is simple: I never heard one of them complain about their position. They just worked to get out of the position they were in.

– Alan Kudravy

We really are living in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The best thing EE's could do is all get out of the industry at once!! Not gonna happen, but it would be the best thing.

– Ronnie

I was laid off earlier this year, and after 6 weeks of searching, the nearest and best job turned out to be 70+ miles away, in v&v testing.

I'm not at the top of the bell curve, but neither am I at the bottom. I have a graduate degree. I've had some notable

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