The Sharp (and Painful) Relationship between Market and Economic Trends and One’s Engineering Field of Expertise and Career Choices
In this month’s column I have chosen to bring up a real-life story received from one of our readers (name withheld). In summary, it tells the story of an RF engineer who strayed to programming fields and has a hard time coming back.
Dear Sirs,I have read with great interest articles depicting the shortage of EM professionals and the short-sighted government and education policies that do nothing to help rectify the problem. I have an interesting story for you, and perhaps you can offer some advice in return.
I am a systems and software professional with 25 years’ experience. But it wasn’t always that way. I received my BSEE degree in 1984, and my favorite specialty was EM, RF, radar and antenna systems. I studied under Dr. James F. Corum, then at West Virginia University. I liked it so much I believe I took every EM course the university had to offer —even the Master’s level courses.
So after graduation I was all set to progress down the path to an EM career. All the places I interviewed with required a security clearance, and I had relatives in East Germany at the time. They all said I would have to wait, but I couldn’t wait as I had a ton of school loan debt to pay off. To bridge the gap I took a programming job. It was easy and well paying and as often happens it shaped my destiny—I never went back to EM.
Fast-forward 25 years and most well paying software development jobs have gone overseas. While the software job migration was taking place, I thought about getting back into EM. A year ago I decided to try to re-enter the EM job market. I have had no success whatsoever. If the EM market is so great, why hasn’t anyone expressed interest? I have carefully tweaked my resume and have crafted cover letters expressing my interest in an EM career and my belief that my software development experience would be an asset in transitioning to a new facet of electrical engineering. Nada. Really though, Maxwell’s equations never go out of style so what does it take in this day and age to get an employer to take a look at me? I have a track record of success, and one would think that employers, seeing the personality traits behind success, might just realize that these traits translate to success in most human endeavors and not just software development. Perhaps employers are partly to blame and not just government education policy? Perhaps there is also an age bias as I am now 47?
Please help me understand. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated.
Our Humble Advice
Indeed, the demand and hence the “market value” varies for different technology fields of expertise. RF engineering is among the analog engineering sciences, which has exhibited an ongoing shortage for about a decade now. Unlike computer sciences and software engineering, becoming an RF engineer requires many years of experience and access to expensive infrastructure and instrumentation. In recent years RF and microwave technologies have been implemented in many sectors. Unfortunately, firms are very unenthused about the prospect of providing on-the-job training. At the same time, employers’ requirements are very stringent and uncompromising about specific skill-sets and experience.
Going back to your story, lack of practical experience is evidently the negative factor. Firms today are not keen for on-the-job training and age might be playing a hidden role as well. A good idea would be to tailor your career search in line with the radical changes taking place in the electronics industry.
My first and intuitive advice would be for you to pursue a position that incorporates programming with RF in such a way that you can emphasize your forté and can utilize the experience that you have acquired. Your knowledge of RF engineering from West Virginia University, as well as your passion for EM engineering, should be the factors qualifying you for an interdisciplinary job, interfacing with RF design. From that point, you might have the opportunity to enrich your RF engineering experience and might move deeper into the EM world.
Please note that there are many venues for RF engineering today. Different technologies and markets (e.g. wireless communications, Wi-Fi, RFID, medical, SATCOM, defense, etc.) require different EM expertise and projected levels of demand could vary over time and geography. You will need to do your own research. Note, they all require programmers. To summarize: Review and define your professional experience as a programmer. Your immediate goal is to locate positions that utilize your specific systems and programming experience, while being part of EM project teams so that your formal education becomes an advantage as well.
Beyond wishing our fellow engineer the best of luck, we can learn from this story. Always focus on developing trends. In times of rapid technological change, your field of expertise will undergo extensive change as well. Your field of expertise may be perceived as both an asset and liability. Still, for the country, RF engineers are an indispensible asset.