ARLINGTON, Va. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), struggling to stay ahead of a sharply rising tide of high-technology patent filings, plans to hire as many as 500 electrical engineers during the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
According to PTO officials, patent applications for telecommunications and electronics inventions have jumped 20 percent annually in recent years. The number of technically complex patent applications, coupled with the sheer volume of filings an estimated 360,000 in 2001 has agency officials scrambling to recruit both new engineering grads and EE veterans as patent examiners.
"We see the need to continue this kind of expansion for the foreseeable future," Nicholas Godici, acting director of the patent office, said in an interview. "The trend for patent filings is explosive in terms of technology and volume." Officials said more electrical and computer engineers are needed to handle an expected 10 to 12 percent annual increase in filings. Expanding the ranks of tech-savvy examiners could also cut the turnaround time for processing patent applications involving fast-changing technologies, where patent life is crucial.
Uncle Sam wants you
As the economic downturn has made it harder for engineers to hang onto jobs or find new ones, it has also made the patent office "pretty competitive in the tech employment market, considering we are the government," Godici said.
Another PTO official, just back from a recruiting trip to Puerto Rico, added that the office is "actually looking pretty good with our pay scale and benefits."
Candidates range from entry-level engineering undergraduates, who start at $50,000 a year plus a 12 percent sign-on bonus, to experienced engineers let go by semiconductor manufacturers. In the latter category, seven engineers who were laid off by Lucent telecommunications IC spin-off Agere Systems (Allentown, Pa.) recently joined the PTO as patent examiners.
Other engineers have been recruited at job fairs, via Internet postings and through newspaper classified ads. PTO's online employment site this week listed six openings for patent examiners with expertise in electrical engineering, computer science and optical systems.
Still, officials said 50 percent of its new engineering force comes from universities. Godici said basic qualifications for high-tech patent examiners include a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. Federal workers must also be U.S. citizens. About one-third of those hired so far have advanced degrees.
The patent office plans to hire a total of 700 new patent examiners this year as the agency shifts to a "performance-based" model intended to reduce the time needed to process patent applications. Initial PTO action on patent applications typically takes about 14 months after examiners pore through prior art to determine whether an invention is indeed unique.
By hiring more and better-trained examiners, "we're trying to bring that down to 12 months or under for first action," said Godici, who is serving as acting director until the expected Senate confirmation of President George W. Bush's nominee to head the patent office, James Rogan, a former California congressman.
Behind the increases
The plan to boost the patent office's technical expertise is driven in part by big increases in filings related to biotechnology, networked-related innovations and telecommunications advances. Semiconductor technology innovations such as data and video compression have helped create additional bandwidth, said James Dwyer, director of PTO's Technology Center. That, in turn, has enabled a range of applications in new fields that are driving the increase in patent filings.
In the IC industry, Dwyer said, "We are seeing simple ideas in new fields that are patentable."
Along with the signing bonus, perks being offered to attract engineers to the patent office include a boost in civil service pay scales, flexible work schedules and continuing education programs, including funds for law school tuition.