ChipWatch - Where Will The Next Generation Of Engineers Come From?
By Matt Grimshaw, Editorial Director of the Semiconductor Technical Journal Future Fab International.
According to the latest round of Q3 financial results we should all be partying like Rockstars because the recession is officially over, profits are back and Elvis has been found alive and well working in a Walmart in St Louis.
Everyone in the supply chain is posting record (relatively speaking) sales and I'm sure lots of C-Level Executives will be enjoying a big fat bonus come Christmas to celebrate while continuing to lay off staff.
Hell, even Ford has made a profit - there is a Santa Claus!
There should however be a declaimer attached to the squashy feelings of joy, for it's now time to rebuild and I suspect that it's not going to be easy. Short term will not be a problem, there are so many out of work engineers it's a buyers market. However, what about the mid to long term?
The Semiconductor industry as a whole may have shot itself in the foot in it's now ubiquitous habit of hiring and firing... for is has inadvertently posted a big advert saying "Come on; JOIN the chip industry - where you are a merely number on a balance sheet!" Of course, in the final reckoning everybody's just a paycheck when it comes to corporate accounting - but if you think about it from another perspective this trend in the industry is alarming.
If you are a schoolkid and you're looking at setting up a career in some kind of tech sector. You look around at the various industries and see that Internet start ups are certainly doing well although they suffer high rates of start up failure. It's an acceptable gamble as you might be one of the sacred two hundred at the next Google.
The internet is still a relatively young business segment (the chip industry's been around for more than 40 years) that has massive growth potential through mobile and the proliferation of new ideas.
Staring at a computer screen all day isn't for everyone though so how about the tech manufacturing disciplines?
Well, LED, Medical Devices and the Photo-Voltaic sectors all seem pretty safe bets, all making money, all poised for massive growth with bright futures ahead of them. So what about the chip sector? Surely the driving force behind all this technology is a good bet?
Nothing but nothing works today without come kind of computer chip doing the thinking/measuring/timing/observing, so surely that's a good field to be in? Well, it's not when you know that the Chip industry sheds tens of thousands of jobs every time there is an economic blip.
For such is the pricing volatility in the industry that if the economy even coughs in the wrong tone of voice, many companies go into anaphylactic shock and lay off staff faster then a quarterback lays off the ball on a 4th down play...
Oh, and when it turns around again, you might get re-hired, but this time as a contractor so they don't have to give you healthcare or any assurances of work from month to month. Nice.
Engineers have become expendable assets to companies these days, and I actually find it distasteful that some in the industry feel it's OK to treat the front line troops in such a manner. It may well turn into a case of 'you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone' with the Engineering community.
Almost all the engineers I know would jump out of the chip business in a heartbeat if they got an offer somewhere else, and that's really a sad state of affairs.
If I were in school I'd not be tempted to jump into the chip industry, even if you dangled a solid gold carrot in front of my nose. There's easier money to be made elsewhere.
The chip industry could find itself facing a brain drain. I've heard and seen many presentations that in the not too distant future there's going to be a shortage of engineering talent in the chip industry.
If that happens it will have a profound effect on every other industry, as without the chips to run the servers, there is no internet. Without the chips to run your phone... of course I'm being extreme, but I'm sure you get the picture.