Is the need for analogue engineers vital?
People are in two minds about the role of analogue engineers in today's industry. One side says technology advancements are making them superfluous, while the other holds that the role requires a consistent supply of talent, of which there is currently a shortage.
After years spent encouraging engineering students to focus on software and digital electronics, some people say the day of reckoning appears to be drawing near: Many analogue mixed-signal design jobs now stay open longer or are simply going unfilled, say recruiters, with some engineers even unable to retire because they can't find a suitable replacement.
Are the glory days of analogue engineering over? Some think so. Source: Getty Images
On the one hand, some people blame the shift from analogue to digital, which produced a generation of engineers who speak the language of code, not circuit schematics. On the other hand, others say that with the advent of systems-on-chip, the easy availability of free circuits, pioneered by companies like TSMC, and software tools to verify designs, there is simply less need for analogue designers.
Analogue's glory days over?
"I would love to get five or more years in where I can contribute, but it's over," says Edison Fong, who was let go in 2009 from his job as principal analogue designer at National Semiconductor. He did a two-year stint at a start-up that was sold to Microsoft and then took a job as a systems payload engineer, which he describes as, "The worst job I ever had. They had us going 80 hours a week until they offered 'early retirement.'"
For the past 18 months, he's been teaching circuit design classes at UC Santa Cruz, doing some selective consulting, and collecting money from some antenna patents. He feels he's better off than some of his friends, who have either been forced to exit the field entirely or commute a horrendous distance to jobs in places like China.
Yet at the same time, open positions for analogue engineers are going begging here in North America; that is, for engineers with both digital and analogue experience and working at the device level.
"Our customers would hire an 80-year-old analogue engineer if she had the right skill set," says Brian Kennedy, only partly joking. Kennedy is the customer relation lead for the GaN on SiC (gallium nitride on silicon carbide) programme at the National Research Council of Canada. Healthcare here, incidentally, is free.
Kennedy, who works with start-ups and multinationals in all verticals that are creating custom wafers on advanced semiconductor materials, says that experienced analogue designers with hands-on experience at the wafer level are worth their weight in gold.
"I have seen industry pay top dollar for these highly specialised skills and believe me this is knowledge that analogue engineers acquired the hard way, by slogging away in the trenches learning what's basically a black art," says Kennedy. He notes that a good designer at the device design level can make as much as $50k to $250k per custom chip.
But having experience at the wafer level and working with mixed signals requires skills in both digital and analogue—not something that all experienced analogue designers possess.
Glen Chenier is an analogue engineer who has spent his entire career bouncing around corporations of every type, at one time in strong demand for his skills designing discrete logic. "But nowadays when you are looking for work, the people doing the hiring are talking about mixed signal and doing everything on silicon," says Chenier.
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