Some say technology advancements are obsoleting the need for analog engineers, while others say that good, experienced analog designers will always be needed and currently are in short supply.
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Engineering students have been encouraged for years to focus on software and digital electronics. Now some people say the day of reckoning appears to be drawing near: Many analog mixed-signal design jobs now stay open longer or are simply going unfilled, recruiters say, with some engineers even unable to retire because they can't find a suitable replacement.
On the one hand, some people blame the shift from analog 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 analog designers.
Analog'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 analog designer at National Semiconductor. He did a two-year stint at a startup 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 either have 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 analog engineers are going begging here in North America — that is, for engineers with both digital and analog experience and working at the device level.
“Our customers would hire an 80-year-old analog 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) program at the National Research Council of Canada. Healthcare here, incidentally, is free.
Kennedy, who works with startups and multinationals in all verticals that are creating custom wafers on advanced semiconductor materials, says that experienced analog 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 specialized skills, and believe me, this is knowledge that analog engineers acquired the hard way, by slogging away in the trenches learning what's basically a black art,” says Kennedy. 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 both digital and analog skills — which not all experienced analog designers possess.
Glen Chenier is an analog 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.
In his career, he says he has never worked at the device level. “When you work for big companies, you tend to get slotted. They don't move you around, and nobody cross-trains.”
Chenier has moved twice in his career, each time for an analog position that eventually evaporated. Settled in Dallas, he doesn't wish to uproot yet again for a job that would lay him off in five years. And jobs for analog engineers aren't plentiful in his area.
After a long stint of unemployment, he finally landed a full-time job doing reverse engineering for a company that repairs legacy telecom equipment.
“It's the perfect job. Having a strong background in circuit design, I can look at someone else's design and sniff out all the connections, deduce the functions, and reproduce the drawings,” he says.
The only drawback? The job pays less than half the money he used to make as an analog design engineer.
Yet demand — and salaries — for good analog engineers with mix-signal experience continues apace. Henry Wintz, solutions manager for the embedded industry practice at Ranstad US, an engineering and employment hiring services firm, says that the number of positions for mixed signal engineers is up 300% compared to only a few years ago, and that pay rates are definitely escalating.
Wintz estimates that the typical time needed to fill an analog/mixed signal position is much longer today than it is for embedded software developers. “Within the first 24 hours that an embedded position is open, we easily have three to five candidates identified as a potential fit for the role. But with mixed signal design, it may be two to three days to identify even one qualified person.”
Part of the reason for the delay is the relatively small pool of qualified candidates and the fact that the skill set required has become much more niched, says Wintz. “From what I see, I'd estimate only about one in 45 engineers might actually be qualified for one of these positions.”
A challenge with mixed-signal design in particular, he says, is that, while an engineer with five years of experience could possibly do the job, it would involve working side by side with a very senior analog engineer to get the rich analog knowledge needed to understand the small nuances of a design.
Is the pool shrinking or are expectations growing?
Some engineers suggest that it is not merely a matter of the pool of engineers shrinking, but rather that the expectations of some employers are growing, bordering on unrealistic.
“My engineering buddies tell me about job requisitions they've seen for analog engineers that require expertise in all of the analog buzz-word areas,” says Paul Rako, a former analog engineer himself, who now works as a creative writer at Atmel Corp. “And then they throw in 'Must know VHDL,' which is a digital programming language. What? It's like two different worlds. Your head would literally explode if you tried to fill it up with all that information!”
Randstad's Wintz admits that he's worked with a handful of clients that have had positions remain open for a year or more. “What it tells me is that their criteria is too strict, and that they are asking for so many skills that basically no one on the planet would qualify without client-specific ramp-up and training.”
Barry Harvey, a staff design engineer at Linear Technology, asserts that companies have always had unrealistic expectations when it comes to hiring analog engineers.
“Say that your company wants to build a widget that requires real arcane experience. Guess what? You can't get an expert at a moment's notice and of course, most management cannot plan or wait, so they just hire or draft a non-optimal choice,” he says.
Every company he's worked at before Linear Technology wanted to make ADCs but never had the right talent. “Radio design is like that, except you can hire a green RF-trained college grad,” he says. “The problem is that experienced RF guys are well-retained — or retired. Very few companies today are like Linear, where there is serious staffing continuity and long-term planning for intellectual growth.”
So what can be done?
Given that good analog design skills are literally learned on the job, working alongside experienced analog designers, how can industry ensure a steady supply of talent needed for the future?
Many believe that on-the-job training, especially when it comes to analog, is the best way to ensure that tacit knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. An added benefit is that continuing education, especially in areas where technology changes rapidly, helps older workers avoid obsolescence.
But employee training, especially for more experienced workers, is not often a priority for companies.
I was mostly analog when analog went down the toilet. The biggest mistake I made is that I was focused on analog design and PCB design for digital signal integrity, which I was good at, and it kept me busy. I really didn't get into learning new programmable stuff, which was not required and there was certainly no incentive for me to learn. I should have insisted on at least a little bit of cross-training in digital FPGAs and VHDL, but there were always other large teams for that and only one analog guy.
Some analog engineers believe that companies of this sort, which do not generally train or retain analog experts, will continue to struggle to find talent or go without. “The outgoing bunch isn't going to work until 90, that's for sure. You get crankier as you get older and you simply aren't going to put up with the way some companies are run,” says Harvey.
So what happens (or doesn't happen) if someone doesn't address the problem?
There is a sense that, without strong industry focus on developing the next generation of analog engineers, product innovation would really suffer.
“We would see mostly product development, not new technology,” says Harvey. He points to the Widlar bandgap as innovation and the writeable CD, while the better Brokaw bandgap and writable DVD are examples of product enhancement and development.
Companies that maintain a motivated talent pool and consciously train and give creative projects to their designers will see real product innovation. Too often though, the most creative engineers will be driven out of companies that confuse innovation and development. On the other hand, companies that empower their engneers to be creative designers will prosper.
Are you an analog engineer, hiring analog engineers, or otherwise have first-hand experience with any of the issues raised in this article? Do you agree or disagree with the analog engineers quoted? We'd love your feedback. Please comment below and join us for the online chat: Analog Engineers: Are the Glory Days of Analog Engineering Over? on Friday, June 20, at 1:00 p.m. ET (10:00 a.m. PT).
This article was originally published on EBN's sister publication EE Times.