Warren Miller finds himself talking evolutionary biology when he mulls the e-commerce prospects for electronics distribution. "We're still in the amphibian stage; we still have gills," said Miller, director of engineering for Marshall Industries (El Monte, Calif.). "But pretty quickly we're going to get to the mammal stage. Over the next few years it's going to become clear to customers that this is the best way [to do business]."
Marshall is a big broadline distributor with clients worldwide, including on the Web. The Internet has been both a blessing and a bane for companies like Marshall, Miller said.
"There's sort of a dilemma with the Web. There's a huge amount of data, but there's not as much knowledge," he said, referring to the difference between, say, press-release claims and specific product specs. "We're trying to take data from suppliers and organize it into knowledge," then translate that into useful advice for clients.
As Miller points out, working on the engineering side of an electronics distributor requires the ability to move freely between technologies to possess the tech equivalent of a degree in Esperanto. Marshall, after all, sells everything from benches and oscilloscopes to Ethernet routers and flash memory.
"We're looking for someone who really loves to see the whole problem," Miller said.
Marshall now has about a dozen engineering vacancies it hopes to fill in the coming months. It also plans to add two dozen field applications engineers to its stable of 75 by the end of the current fiscal quarter, Miller said.
But distributor electronics isn't for every EE, said Ed D'Entrement, senior vice president of Sager Electronics (Hingham, Mass.). "There are a lot of people with technical degrees, but not all that many who have a sales penchant as well," D'Entrement said.
On the other hand, for those who do enjoy the constant client contact, fewer engineering jobs offer as much breadth and variation. "One of the attractive aspects of working for a distributor is that in a lot of cases you're not dealing with one manufacturer. You become somewhat competent in a number of technologies," he said.
Sager has about 20 engineering jobs scattered across its 29 North American facilities, D'Entrement said. Most are field-applications positions in the applied-technologies division.
A wave of mergers has stirred up the industry, muddying the jobs picture. Still, companies are in a hiring mood. NECX, one of the Internet's leading distributor sites, has several openings, including EDI programmer, project leader, quality-assurance leader and senior Unix administrator. It also needs a Web applications developer and an Internet manager.
Avnet, with some 8,700 employees worldwide, seeks a technical specialist in Dallas with one to two years of hardware-design experience.