I try to keep in touch with a lot of former colleagues in different companies I've worked in, but looking at my inbox recently it seems an unusually large number of people I used to know or work with are leaving their companies, often because operations are being consolidated and the required changes just don't fit within the framework of people's family or personal obligations, etc.. There's no shortage of jobs for good engineers, but the trend still seems clear to me.
Reading an article -- Tektronix, five years after sale to Danaher, continues to shed jobs and struggle
-- it reminded me of one of my most recent employers, and how sad it was to take my bike to work every morning riding through a large campus of empty or half-empty buildings. I felt incredibly grateful to work with some exceptionally knowledgeable people who had spent much of their life at that company, and it was sad to feel like it was slowly growing older and older and soon the whole fab (and much of the associated activity around it) would be put in a retirement home on life support as chip manufacturing inexorably moves more and more to toward Taiwan, etc.
You can feel the history and discovery and knowledge built up on these campuses, and it's always sad for me to feel like we've reached the end of the story as another new book is being written on the other side of the globe -- but that's the way progress often works. The challenges facing Tek or many other established companies aren't going to disappear any time soon.
That said ... I'm not entirely pessimistic (nor overly nostalgic), and the economics of China versus Europe is less black and white than it used to be, and opportunities are always there ... but it did get me wondering: what are the opportunities in Europe or North America in the next 10 to 20 years? If you asked me 5 years ago if I'd want my daughter to be an embedded engineer, I'd say yes if she has the interest, curiosity and attention to detail needed for it. Reasonable expectation of a six figure salary, generally good working environments and benefits, and satisfaction in your work. Hard to complain about that. I honestly don't know what I'd say today. Probably yes, but with more hesitation than not so many years back.
I find myself wondering more often than usual what areas you should be focusing on today to stay relevant in the decade or two ahead of us? Is chip design going to remain in Europe (the traditional thinking of keep the high-end stuff local and farm out the dirty work to cheaper regions)? I already see a lot of chip design in Shanghai, etc., and while China still has some struggles in certain areas they're on the road to establishing their own capacity from top to bottom in the design and manufacturing process.
Is the future rosier in product design, where you can still thrive anywhere in small to medium sized companies with the right ideas and execution? Should students today be focusing on that, rather than more general semiconductors and chip design, etc., and look at MCUs and ICs as a commodity bought from the lowest bidder?
Technology and the need for good designs, developers and electrical engineers isn't going anywhere, and the jobs will always be there in one capacity or another ... but as I see a lot of big campuses slowly shuttering and grinding to a halt all across Western Europe ... it does make me stop and think: "where to from here?". It's another decade before my daughter will be looking for a good university, but even in my situation ... what am I doing today to make sure I still have the skills required to put food on the table a decade from now? It's something I'm eagerly asking myself and also thinking about some of the people around me, and while I'm lucky (and grateful) that I have options that I can put on the table, it's definitely not obvious to figure out which choices are the best ones in an unusual and cloudy future.