PORTLAND, Ore. An enduring shortage of analog engineers--that may be getting worse rather than better--is requiring even digital chip powerhouses like Freescale Semiconductor Inc. (Austin, Texas) to redouble their efforts to recruit and groom analog engineers in the "black art" of mixed-signal processing.
"Analog integrated chip design remains something of an art," said Gary Grandbois, principal analyst for
iSuppli's Analog ICs and Semiconductor Forecast. "Today, analog designers have to be comfortable in both analog and digital design, a demanding task that makes these designers rare, highly regarded and well paid."
Mixed signal chips that combine both digital and analog circuitry allow chip makers to combine their manufacturing expertise in digital device cores with proprietary analog interfaces to the outside world.
"Mixed signal expertise is what we look for when investing in semiconductor makers," Alex Woodward
sector portfolio manager for technology at Mazama Capital Management (Portland, Ore.). "Analog circuitry on a digital chip is the 'secret sauce' that can make a proprietary semiconductor uniquely qualified for high-volume applications--and that's where the money is."
But analog engineers are becoming increasingly hard to find. The U.S. still leads the world in electrical engineering graduates, but digital engineering has become so popular that new graduates specializing in analog electronics are outnumbered by at least 10 to 1, according to Freescale, which has been trying to build-up its analog capabilities since separating from parent Motorola in 2006.
"In the U.S. we are producing maybe 1,000 analog engineers per year from our top universities, but 10 or 20 times that many digital engineers are graduating," said Jignasha Patel, Freescale's director of global talent sourcing. "There are a lot of EEs graduating, but fewer and fewer of those are specializing in analog."
When Freescale was spun off from Motorola as a private company two years ago, most of its analog engineers remained at Motorola. Freescale immediately began an aggressive program to recruit analog engineers to design mixed-signal chips.
"With 23,000 employees in 30 countries, we tried to make up our shortfall in the U.S. by recruiting from other countries, so we opened development centers in many areas across the world in order to tap into the analog talent wherever it might be," said Patel. "We found that eastern Europe and Asia both had growing markets with analog engineering talent. In China, for instance, there is significant analog talent.
"Unfortunately, we also found that they were without the depth of expertise you need to participate in the global economy. We can find really great digital talent everywhere in the world, but we are still having a hard time finding experienced analog talent anywhere in the world," he added.
As a result, Freescale concluded that it had to start a homegrown effort to recruit experienced analog engineers. Managers also realized they had to foster an internal culture that provided newly graduated engineers with the experience they needed to develop a deeper analog expertise.
Freescale's first step was to hire a corporate-wide analog engineering manager with a proven track record, and with the experience necessary to develop Freescale's internal analog engineering resources. That manager is Arman Naghavi, a 19-year veteran of Analog Devices, who had more recently overseen design, product and test and applications development at Intersil Corp. (Milpitas, Calif.)