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Are we meeting the demand for analog engineers?

Posted: 13 Jun 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:National Semiconductor  analog engineer  circuit design 

Some in the industry underscore that technology advancements are bringing down the need for analog engineers, while others contradict by saying that good, experienced analog designers will always be needed and are in short supply as of the present.

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 analog mixed-signal design jobs now stay open longer or are simply going unfilled, according to recruiters, 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 SoC, the easy availability of free circuits, pioneered by companies such as TSMC, and software tools to verify designs, there is simply less need for analog designers.

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Are the glory days of analog engineering over? Some think so. (Source: Getty Images)

"I would love to get five or more years in where I can contribute, but it's over," said 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 described 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 such as 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," noted Brian Kennedy, only partly joking. Kennedy is the customer relation lead for the GaN on SiC 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, stated 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 specialised 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," indicated 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 analog, not something that 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," said Chenier.

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