Mind of the Engineer: Harried But Still Happy

Article By : Brian Santo

The new 2020 edition of the Mind of the Engineer reveals engineers are facing more pressure, but still love their jobs...

You are an engineer? Ah, good, let me read you your fortune. This line here? This is your life line. Look how it curves here. That means you are satisfied with your job, yes? Yes. Also, you see how it is not just one line, but several lines that intertwine? You are leading many lives. You work with hardware… but also software? I thought so. And perhaps you also do some… mechanical engineering? No, wait – chemical engineering? Yes, I knew it. And this? This is your fate line. You see how it is truncated? You feel as if you have more to do, and yet less time to do it, yes?

Yes. You want to know how I know? Like the best chiromancers, I simply told you things you already told me – or in this case what 1,400 engineers participating in a survey told us. I have here the results of the latest poll of engineers that EE Times and EDN conduct every two years. The 2020 edition of the “Mind of the Engineer” reinforces a lot of things we already knew, but it also reveals some new information about the job, the profession, and the industry.

Innovation

When respondents were asked, 80 percent said their companies encourage them to think creatively, “outside the box” – 34 percent agreed strongly with that statement, 46 percent somewhat. Apparently, 20 percent of you are working jobs that treat you like drones. That might be dissatisfying for those of you in that fifth, but there are people in other professions that would happily trade for those odds.

The vast majority of respondents (95%) say they agree strongly or somewhat that they are obliged to constantly learn new things. Another big majority (83%) report they have to devote considerable time to train themselves on new technologies and techniques.

We asked respondents which new technologies they’ve already adopted (that’s the blue part of each bar in the accompanying graph); we also asked which they would be interested in adopting within the next two years (the gray part of each bar). Sensors was huge, and it stands to reason that signal processing was a close number two. EDA/CAD ranked highly, as did IoT, and power management. Autonomous vehicles technology was closer to the bottom of the list, as were 5G, security, and digital twins.

Engineers and technology adoption
Click image to see a larger, clearer version.

One of the statistics that popped out of the data this year is that creating something completely new is a top priority around the world, but it is a notably higher priority among engineers in EMEA countries.

Teams, and the increasing diversity of skills

Engineers report that they are members of multidisciplinary teams, unsurprisingly dominated by EEs, but also including software engineers, mechanical engineers (MEs), a physicist, chemist, or biologist or two.

They also widely report seeing a growing need for other expertise in other areas, including computer science, math, physics, biology, business & finance and even arts, music & the humanities.

The majority of engineers report being quite comfortable working in teams, though they would appreciate more contact with peers outside their own companies.

Covid-19

That impulse might have once been satisfied with attendance at trade shows and conferences, but the pandemic shut that down completely. Heck, it’s made it more difficult to contact peers within companies. We’re all videoconferencing more. Anecdotal evidence not from the survey suggests that has been far more effective than anyone had expected.

The “Mind of the Engineer” survey did note what a lot of us already knew: working at home has created a demand for additional computer and communications infrastructure to support employees of all sorts working at home, not just engineers.

Engineers responding to our survey report that support includes: VPNs (71%), a company desktop or laptop (65%), broadband or Wi-Fi access (61%), office productivity software (51%), and more.

The survey reveals some geographically-based differences in attitudes about working at home. For example, most US engineers prefer to go into the office to perform circuit design and simulation, while many European engineers have grown comfortable doing both from remote locations.

Job pressures

There has never been a time when engineers weren’t aware of costs and time-to-market pressures, but roughly three-quarters of respondents say those pressures are getting worse. More than two-thirds of engineers (71%) say their employers are pressuring them to accomplish more with less, and to work on more projects than they had just three years ago (70%).

These pressures exist and are getting worse across the world, but they are reported to be more acute in China and in the rest of Asia, where each engineer has responsibility for more projects (~6) that must be completed in less time (~7 months) than their counterparts in the Americas or EMEA (~5 projects and ~9 months).

Well over half (56%) of survey respondents agreed with the statement “I have too much work to do to do everything well.”

Engineers and risk
Click image to see a larger, clearer version

Perhaps that’s why engineers are edging toward “greater comfort with risk.” With more to do, and with less time and inadequate resources to do it, do they have a choice?

We should stop here for a second to observe that that a lot of this is bad, and that the 40% of you who identify as having management responsibilities should at least take note of it. What all that means in terms of design integrity, and ultimately in terms of product reliability, is far beyond the scope of the survey, but these results should certainly inspire engineering companies to ask themselves those questions.

Out-sourcing design activity is, of course, an option. “Outsourcing” is a wide basket that includes going to design houses or consultancies, hiring temps, or relying on the resources of a distributor. “The Mind of the Engineer” reports that younger engineers are more apt to rely on outsourcing.

So whaddaya know? Info sources

Step 1 for most engineers seems to be the same as for anybody else: do a keyword search on Google. Doesn’t matter whether the engineer is looking for new ideas, researching specific components for a project, or dealing with a specific engineering challenge, such as a test or debug problem. Searching Google is choice number one.

Other options include going straight to manufacturers’ web sites, or to an electronic distributor’s web site. Other ways to get info include attending a webinar, checking out an industry media web site, or (and who would have thought?) actually calling or emailing a human at a manufacturer or distributor. The order of preference changes, sometimes significantly, depending on what the engineer is doing – browsing, doing some research, or looking for a solution to an immediate problem.

Information-gathering preferences also vary based on the age of the engineer, and by what geographic area the respondent resides in. Americans and Europeans, for example, are much more apt to go directly to a component or equipment suppliers web site, for example.

YouTube has become a repository for a soaring number of tutorials on just about everything. New engineers are significantly more apt to rely on YouTube tutorials. LinkedIn has clearly out-distanced other social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Wechat, etc.) as a forum for professional information gathering. In general, use of social media is increasing.

Engineers in Asia, by the way, are much more liable to use manufacturer-sponsored communities than their peers elsewhere. They are also more likely to use mobile devices for just about everything that can be done online.

Who are you?

The results in the 2020 “Mind of the Engineer” survey are based on close to 1,500 survey responses. A third of the respondents were located in the Americas. Another third was from locations in Asia other than China (Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, India, Australia). Roughly one-sixth of the respondents were from China, and the final sixth was comprised of respondents from EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) countries. These fractions are all approximations.

A wide range of engineering disciplines and markets were represented (robotics, consumer, IoT, computers, communications, semiconductors, medical, test, etc.). The clear majority of respondents are EEs. There are a few MEs, a significant minority with degrees in computer science, in physics, or software, and a smattering of chemical engineers and people trained in social sciences or arts/humanities.

The average age was 48 years old, and the average amount of professional experience was 24 years. Sixty percent of respondents described themselves as staff; the rest identified as management – mostly engineering management, but some upper management. The vast majority (93%) of respondents were male.

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