An engineer who has experienced first-hand the changes that the engineering profession has undergone since the days of Bill Hewlett and David Packard argues that the loss of innovative capacity is the direct result of a vacuum in American business thought leadership.
My copy of IEEE Spectrum magazine used to arrive with physical presence, heavy with want ads for engineers. Today, I checked Craig’s List online and found 41 engineering positions based in Silicon Valley that were listed under an agglomeration of “architectural/engineering/CAD.” The closest position relating to electronics design was for a technician. At most, seven of the job listings might be ever so loosely lumped into an electrical category. Only three jobs were listed for software.
What happened to all the engineering jobs? Where is the silicon in Silicon Valley?
The US Department of Labor provides more detailed, if more bureaucratic, employment numbers than my simple reference to Craig’s List. The total pool of domestic electronics engineering jobs totaled 223,000 in 2012, some 57% of the total electrical engineering jobs if you include those related to electrical power.
The pool is projected to grow only 5% over the next decade, which works out to only 1,100 new electronics engineering jobs per year. The US graduates approximately 14,000 electrical engineers each year and imports many more. So digging up government data paints a darker picture.
As today's employment ads demonstrate, the engineering profession has changed dramatically over the last few decades. The key questions are how and why these changes occurred, and what we can expect in the near future.
Because products are now designed and manufactured overseas, electronics companies now place most engineers into supply chain management roles. Supply chain management is just another name for procurement, and that task involves value engineering (seeking the lowest price), managing specifications, enforcing contract terms, and guaranteeing supplier quality.
In many cases, the only uniquely American domestic contribution is the brand name. The most significant change in electronics engineering is the death of Moore’s Law. The technical life cycle of the integrated circuits has essentially hit the end of the road. The goal of higher transistor density is hamstrung by thermal constraints and the limits of lithography. Current efforts to get around these obstacles include three dimensional gambits such as the FinFET and die stacking, but these strategies deviate from the ever-lowering cost model of planar technology.
American electronics firms use the word “fabless” when using offshore producers. The largest American semiconductor firm ranks below the tenth-largest company in the world. As more jobs move offshore, the careers of domestic IC engineers have been hit.
An engineer leaning over a workbench cluttered with components and crowned with an oscilloscope is no longer the stereotypical depiction of electronics design. Printed circuit boards are no longer designed using dolls on light tables. Now they are designed on computers, and most printed circuit board manufacture has been offshored.
The deaths of the iconic analog engineers Jim Williams and Bob Pease in 2011 punctuated this paradigm shift. The growth of the FPGA (such as in software-defined radio) has also fundamentally changed digital design. Ross Freeman co-founded Xilinx in 1985, recognizing that advances along the trajectory of Moore’s Law were making transistors cheap, which created an opportunity.
This business has matured into a multi-billion dollar industry. Stark evidence of these fundamental changes can be found in almost any typical consumer product today, which has very few components. The scarcity of parts mirrors the growing scarcity of jobs.
Electronic product companies view their electronic products as commodities, with many competitors competing on price alone. This thinking drives the familiar quality program Six Sigma. As electronic components and systems prices dropped, the consumer market for handheld products blossomed.
Providing connectivity among distributed devices led to “cloud services” in remote datacenters. Large datacenters using commodity servers are springing up all over the world. Due to the electrical power demands of datacenters, there has been rapid growth in specialized software to increase the utilization of the servers’ computing power (known as virtualization).
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