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.
Are the glory days of analog engineering over? Some think so.
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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, say 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 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 have either 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. 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," 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," says Chenier.
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 Technologies, 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," he explains.
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," he adds.
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.