Career Focus: Semiconductors

Career Focus: Semiconductors

BY John R. Platt Posted: 1 Jan 2013

Statistically speaking, quite a few of the people reading this article are probably doing so on new tablet computers that they picked up or received over the holidays. Those tablets — which didn't exist just a few years ago — would not be possible without the semiconductor industry. At the same time, the growth of the modern semiconductor industry has been fueled by the rapid development of new technologies — tablets, smartphones, and hundreds of other connected devices — that can be found in almost every facet of our daily lives.

After an off year in 2012, the semiconductor industry is expected to grow 4.5% in 2013 to $303 billion, according to recent projections from World Semiconductor Trade Statistics (WSTS). With that growth the industry also has a tremendous need for new employees. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, nearly a quarter of a million people in the U.S. alone are employed by the semiconductor industry, and that number is growing three times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy.

A Boom and Bust Industry

The expected growth for 2013 follows a 3.2% drop in 2012, the latest sign that the semiconductor industry has, historically, experienced a fairly high level of volatility. "This is definitely a boom and bust industry," says Paul Kostek, former president of IEEE-USA. "Over the past 30 years, I don't think there's one other industry, not even aerospace, which has ups and downs as spectacular as the semiconductor industry."

WSTS places some of the blame for the recent swings on the world economy, but Kostek feels the industry's very success also creates boom and bust periods. "The pressures on the semiconductor industry are much higher than it is on other industries," he says. "The producers of semiconductors are in a constant cycle to get smaller, faster and more powerful. I think a lot of the boom and bust is just dealing with the challenge of that quick pace."

That pace creates change, but experts say it doesn't necessarily translate into risk for employees. "The world is an evolving place," says Ray Upton, vice president of sales-Americas for Texas Instruments. "Smartphones and tablets and things like that tend to boom very big when they boom. And then you see products and technologies for things like industrial applications and medical applications and energy-based applications and automotive applications — those tend to have a whole lot less cyclicality to them."

The rapid pace of the industry does mean that engineers need to keep up with the changes in their field. "I think it's important to always stay fresh on technology. It does expire," says Cindi Harper, Intel's greater Americas talent delivery manager. "The employees that always want to be on that leading edge, they'll go further because they're constantly staying marketable in their technology space. They're evolving as the technology evolves. The people who are willing to go out and try things and take risks, they're the ones that are going to make it in the long run."

Jobs for Engineers from Many Disciplines — but a Priority for Software Engineers

"A surprising number of disciplines are needed to create complex chips, from electronic, mechanical, chemical, to software, applied physics and system engineers," says John E. Blyler, editorial director of Extensionsmedia. "These disciplines must work together to meet time-to-market, cost and quality demands in vertical spaces like consumer, communication, automotive, medical, space — any area that relies on semiconductor and embedded electronics."

Talented employees are needed in both design and manufacturing, says Harper, who points out that all semiconductor companies are competing for the same people in a limited job pool due to the industry's rapid growth and a shortage of new engineers coming out of the U.S. school system. "In our field we're looking at software and hardware engineers, both from recent graduate levels and deep expertise and experience."

Although all kinds of engineers are needed, Harper reports that the majority of Intel's 2013 hires will be software-related, a shift echoed by others. "Software today is the key differentiator for companies across devices and platforms," says Amanda McPherson, vice president of The Linux Foundation. "Hardware has become a commodity; the software is what drives the user experience and functionalities of any device. Because of this, software programmers are in higher demand than ever before. We expect job prospects to be good for software engineers in the year ahead, especially as Android and other Linux variants drive new consumer devices into the market and new user experiences on those devices."

Harper says opportunities are available for engineers of all education levels. "In the college graduate space we look at computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering, whether they want to down the hardware or software path. When you look at the latest gadgets they're really combining hardware and software, so really being able to partner together with hardware or software."

Higher degrees and practical experience matter, Harper says. "In computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering we would prefer them to have more advanced degrees — the master's or PhD level — and some kind of lab experience."  In addition, cross-pollinating your experience with other disciplines makes a potential employee extremely valuable. "If you're going into software, have some level of hardware lab experience, or vice-versa," she suggests.

Skills and Personality Matter

With its broad technical focus and coworkers from a wide range of backgrounds, engineers in the semiconductor field need to have the ability to work well with others. "Today's engineer must possess an above average mental and emotional IQ," Blyler says. "He or she must be technically competent in their field and be skilled in social interactions since most of today's designs rely on global teams."

Ben Sherman, who recently started as a tech with Intel, says it's important to be open-minded and to understand the multi-cultural nature of today's workforce. "Intel has employees from everywhere around the world. You've got to be prepared and understandable and open to work with people who don't share common ideas with you," he says.

Andy Femrite, North American engineering solutions center manager for Arrow Electronics, says he looks for several personality traits when hiring. "Beyond obvious technical skills desired or required for certain roles, I emphasize flexibility, enthusiasm, communication and resourcefulness. That often swiftly narrows the field of candidates!"

People with a constant desire to learn and innovate are well suited for the industry. "If you're not moving you're dead," says Thomas Coughlin, founder of Coughlin Associates. "People need to be constantly learning and paying attention." He suggest staying keyed into the latest advancements coming out of academia and conferences as well as any new R&D work being done at your company or their partners.

Coughlin says many people in the field eventually specialize, but starting with a broad range of knowledge and hands-on experience is essential. "You need to get some practical experience and find out how this stuff works and is being implemented. Then you can broaden you knowledge. You need to learn design skills, you need a good knowledge of circuitry, you need a general knowledge of materials and how they interact, as well as what kinds of materials are being used in the semiconductor industry."

Although some employers may invest a year or more getting their employees up to speed in their new careers, it's also important to be able to hit the ground running. "With these fast-paced industries, training is something a lot of companies doing have time for," Coughlin says. "You're going to need to spend time or earn your spurs to do a good job."

Getting Started

Upton says a background in analog technologies is a good place to start for anyone interested in entering the semiconductor field. "Take coursework in analog technology and microcontroller technology — any coursework that enables the real-world systems" he suggests. "Irrespective of market dynamics or semiconductor industry cyclicality, analog and microcontrollers specifically are always in demand." He also advises taking "what would often be referred to as fourth-year or fifth-year work around project-oriented, real-world systems."

Kostek points out that you might need to relocate to find the best opportunities. "If the market crashes in Oregon for semiconductor jobs, for example, you're probably a lot more limited than if you are in the Silicon Valley."

If you're still in school, Sherman suggests getting involved with your local IEEE student section. "It gave me a lot of opportunities to show both leadership and my public speaking abilities. Those are hard qualities to demonstrate in you haven't already had a job."

Consider taking a few internships to get hands-on experience and a broader industry perspective, says Kyle Burk, a technical sales representative for Texas Instruments, who took three internships with TI before landing his current job. "It gave me a really good understanding of how our product groups work and what it takes to develop a product," he says.

No matter how you get in, Coughlin suggests engineers might find the semiconductor industry uniquely satisfying. "I think it's been a very rewarding field for the people that are in it because you can see the fruits of your labor in almost everything that you touch," he says. "Every consumer electronic device, every computer, every mobile device, every server, every time you get on the internet you're interacting with electronic circuits. It's got to be a very rewarding experience because it does so much for everybody."

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