If you have an engineering job now, you may want to hold on tight—there are not many openings on the street right now. And in a weak employment market, those who have jobs look more attractive to prospective employers than those who are out of work. "The market is universally weak," says Tom McDermitt, owner of Professional Recruiting Consultants, a Sarasota, FL-based recruiting firm for engineers. "It's a buyers market with more candidates than jobs."
According to McDermitt, many companies have a lock-down on new hiring. "What hiring there is, it's very cautious," he says. "Where a company does have a high-priority need, they may have to go to the CEO for permission to hire."
But it's not all bad news. Through this downturn, design engineers have fared better than some of their counterparts, since new products have to be created to fuel demand for the eventual upturn. In fact, some companies—like Xilinx—take the opportunity to focus on R&D. The company hasn't laid off any engineers during the downturn, but instead keep their engineering departments busy by focusing on new product development, says spokesperson Tamara Snowden.
Many people in the design-engineer recruiting business agree. "I wouldn't characterize it as a buyer's market for design engineers. But the design side has held up better than other areas," says Ben Liebstein, managing director at Bennet Allen & Associates, a recruiting firm in Charlotte, NC that specializes in placing design engineers. "Most companies have tried to hang on to their design engineers because they're working on things that will pay off in a year or two."
Some companies say they're actually seeing a glimmer of daylight. At Cadence Design Systems Inc. (www.cadence.com), a large design services provider for the electronics industry, the demand for engineers is rising slightly after a period of stagnancy. "Our number of openings has remained steady over the past six months," says Paul Trevisan, group director of corporate staffing at Cadence. "If anything, we may be seeing a small up-tick."
Over at tier-one automotive supplier Troy, MI-based Delphi Corp. (www.delphi.com), executives say the job outlook for design engineers is starting to grow. Delphi employs 60,000 engineers to design and produce electronic and mechanical systems for vehicles, so the company is continually in the hiring mode. Officials note that electronic, mechanical and industrial design engineers are always in demand, though the geographic needs shift depending on the location of the company's design wins.
A few hot spots
Throughout the downturn, industry has kept one eye on future development. According to research firm Gartner Inc. (www.gartner.com), there is an inverse relationship between innovation activity and downturns. When the economy is down, product R&D goes up. So it's no surprise if design engineers are weathering the prolonged economic blues better than other technical workers.
Yet the outlook for design engineers varies greatly across industries. If you're involved in wi-fi design, the employment lights may be bright. If your expertise is in telecom or wire-line networking, you may still be receiving unemployment checks. "There are some random spots with greater activity," says McDermitt, "such as wireless and Internet connections." McDermitt also adds defense-oriented companies to his list of hot sectors. "Plus, any product related to GPS technology is creating activity."
Over at Cadence, Trevisan sees both what's hot and what's not. "I see continued weakness in the telecom and networking industries," says Trevisan. "I see strength in software development, analog, and mixed signal based on our continued need for top talent in those areas."
Some demand is geographic in nature. "Many companies are looking for design engineers with international background," says Liebstein. "We haven't seen erosion in Asia." Liebstein notes that new product design work is still done domestically, while upgrades are often shipped outside the U.S. "If it's a patentable product, we're going to see the design done here. If it's a product upgrade, the design work is being done overseas."
No slack at TI
Design engineers' chances of getting a job seem to be best when they don't need a job. At Texas Instruments, recruiters favor engineers who are currently employed and come recommended while unsolicited resumes pile up. "We've been targeting those who are still employed," notes Pamela Ferrell, manager for bringing in really cool talent (yes, that's her actual title). "About 50% come through referrals from our managers." According to Ferrell, the balance of new design engineers is discovered by TI's group of ten recruiters. She notes that it takes TI about 60 to 70 days to fill a position.
TI has continued to hire design engineers through all phases of the current down cycle. "During this downturn, our need for design engineers has not changed," says Ferrell. "Over the last four to six months, we've averaged 70 current openings."
TI's design engineering needs reflect the market's current demand for wireless and software talent. "We need designers in wireless and systems solutions designers," notes Ferrell. "We're building products to get out quickly." As for the actual openings, hiring needs are specific. "Out of our current 76 openings, there is a mix of analog, mixed signal, ASIC, and circuit design," says Ferrell.
And the crystal ball says . . .
One common thread through the design employment market is that companies have pared their staffs down to a highly efficient level. One small blip in demand will trigger the need for fresh troops. "People are getting stressed out because they're doing the work of more than one person," says McDermitt. "It's getting to the point where even a tidbit of demand will force a hire. My crystal ball says things will pick up in six months."