The Perennial Shortage Of Engineers

As today, so it was over a decade ago – the perennial shortage of engineers.

“The biggest shortage on the planet today is competent engineers,” says Robin Saxby, CEO of ARM. Speaking in November 2000.

“There’s a declining interest in engineering degrees at the very time we’re expanding and needing the people,” says Lucent Microelectronics CEO,John Dickson.

“Today, not only is the industry experiencing a period of scarce availability of human resources, but some observers are even imagining a future slow down in growth because of insufficient availability of skilled and trained people,” says Pasquale Pistorio, CEO of STMicroelectronics.

All three were discussing the industry’s most intractable problem at last week’s Electronics Forum 2000 in Naples, and their views were being echoed by every CEO and senior executive at the meeting.

Pistorio pointed to a significant resource – Sicily’s Aetna Valley which has 1,300 students in its engineering faculties. “Today, an engineer at an equal level of know-how and productivity in Sicily costs us at least 30 per cent less than in Milan, 50 per cent less than in most other European countries and one third the cost we experience in our Silicon Valley locations,” says Pistorio.

Lucent’s Dickson quoted the US Engineering Workforce Commission which recorded that between 1986 and 1989 there had been a 19 per cent decline in engineering degrees and a 44 per cent decline in electronics engineering degrees.

He also quoted US Department of Education statistics for 1990-96 which recorded a five per cent drop in high-tech degrees for the six year period, and a 22 per cent drop in electronics engineering degrees.

“There is a divergence between the availability of people and the requirements of the industry which we’re not going to turn round in the next ten to fifteen years,” warns Dickson.

Pistorio had a more hopeful scenario for Europe, than Dickson’s US scenario. “While today the demand for engineers exceeds their availability in Europe, I am convinced that, in the long term, the superior European infrastructure in terms of the general schooling system, universities and research institutes will offer us a strong competitive advantage”.

Pistorio added: “East-European countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary or Rumania offer employment opportunities that are far from being sufficiently exploited”.

In response to these publicly expressed opinions, there were some private conversations in which press representatives pointed out to executives that whenever their publications ran stories about engineer shortages they received many letters and emails from engineers – usually in their 40’s and 50’s – who were finding it extremely difficult to get jobs.

Privately, executives conceded that they principally wanted younger engineers, with a few years experience, able to travel unrestrictedly, and prepared to work unusual – and sometimes unusually long – hours.

For this ideal specimen, the press people pointed out, a company would, nowadays. have to offer both interesting, leading-edge projects to work on and stock options or other success-related rewards.

Privately executives conceded that the ideal engineer, as described, is becoming extraordinarily difficult to find, and that they should be looking at re-training and re-skilling existing engineers and working with them, adapting their companies to fit in with the particular circumstances of middle-aged staff.

After all, if companies are prepared to set up design centres in Brazil, India, China and Russia to recruit local engineers, it shouldn’t be beyond their powers to accommodate older engineers.

Furthermore, it is pointed out that recent takeovers of engineering rich companies like Phoenix VLSI by Texas Instruments, and Element 14 by Broadcom, have valued engineers at $1m a head.

So it would very likely be cost-effective to spend money on getting older engineers into the workforce. And clearly there is scope for European governments to provide help in this area.



  1. Pay is the crux of the issue. It is ok when you are young but once the financial responsibilities start then it is inadequate and unacceptable. For a career that is so valuable it really should be much better than it is.

  2. Anonymous writes: I’m one of those cantankerous 40-something silverback engineers, and (so far) finding work hasn’t been a problem at all. In fact a recurring question I get asked is do I know anybody else with my expertise. Electronics isn’t just the reason I get up in the morning, it’s frequently also why I’m late to bed because I have a bad habit of trawling datasheets & running Spice models after my wife & son are in The Land of Nod. I have difficulty imagining doing anything else with my life, but from time-to-time I do get to wondering quite how much my wanton geekery has cost me over the years.
    For many years I’ve been hijacking my own career path by insisting on becoming a progressively better engineer rather than accepting offers of management jobs. The result is I’ve become steadily better at both re-hashing old designs & keeping up with new technology. I don’t find it at all taxing to prove that I’m cheaper & more efficient than two junior engineers. However I’m now working for managers who are roughly my age, no brighter than me & no more socially adept, but they’re driving a newer car & living in a somewhat bigger house. So the question is how do you sell my life choices to the Milk Snatcher generation?
    One other thought: Your comments may well be valid for large corporations, but what a senior engineer brings to the party for an SME sized business is the question “Are you sure that’s what you want?” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been handed a spec for an incremental improvement to a product range, then seen the reaction when I’ve pointed out what alternatives could be acheived within the same budget & timescale.

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