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The Shortage of Analog Engineers Is Self-Inflicted

I constantly hear analog-industry leaders talk about the lack of young people pursuing careers in analog design. In the United States and Europe there is a huge push for relaxation of immigration requirements for technical professionals to address the claimed shortage. If there is a shortage, I think the problem is not the lack of youthful interest, but rather the fact that the educational systems chase potentially great analog engineers away. Let me share a personal experience that is still relevant today.

I arrived at the University of Florida's College of Engineering after having spent nearly four years traipsing around what was then West Germany wearing US Army greens. Sometimes we had to go stare down the East German border guards for a few days for who-knows-what reason. On weekends we were careful to not be in the wrong place, in case one of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists wanted to make another political statement by killing innocent people. So when I approached my education, it was from a different perspective from most of the other students. I didn't have time for games or partying. I just wanted to get through the program and start my career.

Unfortunately, the university wanted to play games. As it turned out, and is still the case today, the first few semesters require engineering students to take a few “weed-out” classes under the guise of rounding out one's education. One of those classes was statics, taught by an elderly professor in the mechanical engineering school.

To graduate from the electrical engineering (EE) school one needed a passing grade in the statics class. On the first day of class the professor explained that grading was simple: three tests, three questions on each test. Each question was worth 33 percent. So if you missed one question you would receive 67 percent. Wonderful . Passing was 60 percent.

On my first test I scored 100 percent. But on the second I missed two questions. Ouch! 33 percent. It was at this point that I learned the standard operating procedure. Most EE students simply dropped the class before it was too late and retook it the next semester. Two or three times was enough to get at least a B and not bring down one's grade point average too much. But I was not into playing games.

Luckily on the last test I missed just one and ended up with a 67 percent for my final grade. I passed. As it later turned out, this brought down my grade point average just below what was necessary to graduate with honors. Maybe I should have dropped the class, but others I knew would go through the weed-out classes, fail one, and then just drop out and go on to some other field of study. Maybe they would even drop out of school, period.

This weeding out process is ridiculous. Consider that the primary- and secondary-school systems in the US regularly have science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs to expose children to the fun of engineering. We trick them into giving STEM a chance. And then when they show up, we try to chase them away. Does this make any sense?

If there is a shortage of analog engineers, then why don't we welcome all who want to try analog with open arms. Give them the space and time to decide themselves if engineering is in their future. Treat them the same way they were first treated during those primary- and secondary-school STEM field trips and guest programs.

Hasn't the engineering world learned by now that technical success in one's career does not require graduation from an esteemed engineering program or scoring high on the weed-out tests? Even Google has come on board with this understanding.

In a recent hiring study of technical staff, Google concluded that one's grade point average and test scores were worthless predictors of success. Google's technical hiring process has evolved to the point where now as much as 14 percent of a team never even attended a university.

Laszlo Bock of Google, commenting on its hiring study, concluded that trick questions thrown out during a hiring interview serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart. I've experienced this first-hand as well. Usually these trick questions are thrown out by the less senior talent of a company when interviewing someone more senior.

There are enough people in the world interested in STEM to keep a steady flow of great analog engineers coming into the system. We just have to stop those who participate in building useless career hurdles that serve no purpose other than to make the hurdle-builders feel powerful and important.

What was your experience in primary school with STEM education? And in college? What sort of interview questions were you subjected to?

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32 comments on “The Shortage of Analog Engineers Is Self-Inflicted

  1. Netcrawl
    July 25, 2013

    Great article Scott! thanks for that. Is there really a shortage here? well, some industry suggests there is a shortage, I think there's something here that need to be discussed first, there is no shortage, its massive shift.

    Today's industry deals exclusively with the digital revolution,lamost eveverything from consumers to manufacturing, we carry our digital stuff wherenever we go, we don't spend(not anymore) much of our attention and thinking about analog things. We're in the process of moving toward the digital things, and most of the people today are doing digital.   

     

     

  2. Scott Elder
    July 25, 2013

    @Netcrawl – Thanks for the compliment!

    I have to agree that software programming is sure consuming alot of engineering talent.  And digital design is migrating very quickly to the point that a digital designer doesn't even need to know electronics.  Once the digital design world accepts that System C is a sufficiently efficient method for hardware design, then RTL will die.

    I wrote on another site that I can see a point in the very near future where analog designers will eventually be the only engineers that know anything about transistors.  All the more reason that we should only encourage and motivate any young person who wants to consider hardware design as a career option.  

  3. Egalitarian512
    July 27, 2013

    I had a gruff instructor at Sacramento City College who taught the Introduction to Engineering Course – he said it was his job to help weed people out of Engineering – year 1976. I passed that class. I really wanted to do Analog Design. My Waterloo was 3rd Semester – Vector Calculus – Line Integrals, etc. I would have been so much more successful if I had taken Linear Algebra first – I didn't even know Linear Algebra existed! I eventually got an A.S. in Electronics. I am 62 now. I am having so much fun learning Linear  Algebra on the internet from Gil Strang at M.I.T. – Thank god for YouTube and the HP 50g.

  4. Scott Elder
    July 27, 2013

    “I am having so much fun learning Linear  Algebra on the internet from Gil Strang at M.I.T.”

    When I interview people I always look for passion first, qualifications second.  As soon as anyone finds their passion or calling in life they should jump in to it with all their heart and forget about rules and titles and degrees.  Rules, titles, and degrees are for after the dust settles…to fill in the blanks if you will.

    I enjoy watching Leonard Susskind's(Stanford) Quantum Mechanics lectures on You Tube.

    Thanks for commenting…!!

     

  5. SunitaT
    July 31, 2013

    @Scott, thanks for the post. I totally agree with your opinion that shortage of analog engineers is self-inflicted. I think one more reason why we less number of analog engineers is that the subject is pretty difficult to understand and we dont have enough experienced professors who can create interest in this topic.

  6. Acepilot
    July 31, 2013

    Scott. Thank you for your article, and thank you for saying what should have been said years ago. I remember my college days, and I remember professors who thought it was their job to “weed out” the unworthy. How stupid and rediculous! And today, we wonder why students don't want to take Engineering? get a clue! It's time we changed this!

  7. rosekgiz
    July 31, 2013

    Hear, hear! I also had the heart-warming experience of the 'weeding-out' class at the start of my engineering education. The professor seemed rather smug when he told everyone to look around and realize that 75% of those students in the lecture hall would not be here next semester – it was true – a self-fulfilling propecy?

  8. JackGrat2
    July 31, 2013

    For years the message has been that Analog is dead. Bob Pease even pushed a shopping cart down the Central Expressway with his scope and breadboarding tools to underline the point. It always required the math rigor that is not experienced wriing code. Sorry Statics gave you such grief, but compared to thermo-dynamics that class is pretty tame. An engineer had better understand basic chemistry and physics too.

    Anyone looking to pursue Analog would be wise to read every book written by Bob, Jim Williams and Jerald Graeme. Then review Stephen Boyd's EE263: Introduction to Linear Dynamical Systems and EE364A – Convex Optimization, all online (thank you Stanford).

    But back to the “shortage”. There are plenty of older engineers with those analog skills. I was mentored by two skilled in the art. Companies need to grow their own. Hire that older engineer and pair them with an apprentice the way it used to be. 

  9. Scott Elder
    July 31, 2013

    @SinitaT – You are absolutely correct about lack of educators in analog.  It seems like there are only a handful of places in the world where one finds more than 3 or 4 analog classes.  Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  10. mphatak
    August 1, 2013

    Totally agree with you, Scott…!!

    I had an awful time at Southampton Univ in the UK – poor teaching, no explanation of the basics, no 'real-world' examples. One of my friends never once attended a lecture during 3 years and he got better grade than I did..

    Then I recently discovered the MIT OCW program and edX.org.

    Hallelujah..!!!

    Thank you MIT for making education into an enlightening experience and not the soul-destroying drudge that I experienced as a freshman back in 1987.

  11. Scott Elder
    August 1, 2013

    @Acepilot — I've don't recall ever sitting in a class room at the University where all the seats were filled up.  Usually more than half empty.  It is NOT the job of the Unversity to decide who gets to cross the bridge into a career as an analog engineer.  That is the job of the employers.  As long as someone wants to invest their time,brains, and money to learn, the students should be treated just like they were on that STEM field trip.

    Thanks for your comments!

  12. Scott Elder
    August 1, 2013

    @rosekgiz – All of the Universities that have weed-out programs should pat themselves on the back.  As Lazlo said in his interview, they've managed to do such a wonderful job focusing on making sure that our industry is populated with primarily those who are excellent test takers.  Funny thing is, I don't recall ever being asked to take a single test since I graduated in 1985!

    Thanks for reading.  I think there are lots of us out here voting for a change.

  13. Scott Elder
    August 1, 2013

    @JackGrat2 – My problem wasn't that Statics was hard, I just wanted to learn electronics.  So it was simply an annoyance/distraction from my perspective.  On the other hand, thermodynamics I did okay because I knew that this was going to be important when working on power electronics.

    I just couldn't understand why I needed to be able to calculate a projected force onto a ferris wheel spoke.  Still haven't had a job yet where that knowledge was required. :-).  One day maybe I'll be a more well rounded analog engineer. 🙂

    Thanks for your comments!

  14. Scott Elder
    August 1, 2013

    @mphatak – Your situation is simply another example that everybody learns in a different way and at a different pace.  Doesn't make one person better than another.  Just means they are different.

    If there is a place where the differences should be embraced it is in the University.  Aren't they supposed to be the institutions of independent thinking?  Well, okay then.  What about independent ways of learning also?  Nope.  There we have standardized tests–one size fits all or you should move on….  As I write this I'm shaking my head….I still don't get it.

  15. mphatak
    August 1, 2013

    Absolutely, Scott.

    I remember getting top marks in maths and physics-related subjects during my first degree without actually ever understanding what the Laplace transform was for… or where it was used…!!

    Sadly a clear failing on my part but now I ask myself why that happened.

    Now I teach and consult at multinationals all over the world and I try to avoid the mistakes I have experienced first-hand by using a mixture of theory and practice with real-world examples.

    Engineering courses need to explain better the real-world relevance with concrete examples, such as the excellent MITx 6.002 MOOC in Circuits & Electronics – one of the best taught courses I have ever attended.

  16. Cookie Jar
    August 1, 2013

    In his first talk to us freshman engineering students, our Dean of Engineering was brutally frank.  Less than one third of us would be making it to second year.  The fallout after that would be less, though still significant.  That's how engineering education worked.

    To achieve the required fallout, some courses would deliberately be tough, though all marks would be adjusted by the bell curve.

    If you happen to be in a group of exceptional students, the bell curve was going to be really rough.   If most of your cohorts were losers, it was going to be easy.

    The justification was that your pass or failure was determined by relative merit.

    The other point he emphasized was that most of what we were going to learn was already obsolete.  The purpose of the high pressure courses was to teach us how to learn efficiently, for to be successful in engineering, learning throughout your career has to be efficient, or you would have no time for work.

  17. Davidled
    August 2, 2013

    I think that market need more analogy engineer in filter, Duplexers, PA design in the Mobile Phone. Analog engineer is one of crucial positions in the future for every sector in the wire and wireless design, even though digital is more popular in the world.

  18. Brad_Albing
    August 6, 2013

    @Scott >>I wrote … in the very near future… analog designers will eventually be the only engineers that know anything about transistors . And tubes. Don't forget tubes. You, me, and Jack Shandle can work as guitar amplifier repair techs 'til we're old and gray.

  19. Brad_Albing
    August 6, 2013

    @Scott >> couldn't understand why I needed to be able to calculate a projected force onto a ferris wheel spoke.  Still haven't had a job yet where that knowledge was required . What if someday, after you retire, you get a job as a carny operating the Ferris wheel. Then you'll be glad you knew that.

  20. Brad_Albing
    August 6, 2013

    @Cookie Jar – Bummer about the intense pressure of some of the courses some of the time (depending on you fellow students). But the point about teaching you to learn efficiently, that's good. In most of my jobs, I didn't know everything I needed to know to execute, but I knew how to find out.

  21. RedDerek
    August 6, 2013

    Sacramento City College

    @Egalitarian512 – funny you should mention this institution because I attended from 1980 through 1984; 1/2 day of my senior year of high school through transfer. I could have left with an AS in engineering (both electronics and mechanical) and in programming. I enjoyed the classes so much that when I did transfer I had too many credits to move. But had a huge background to start my final education and work development.

  22. RedDerek
    August 6, 2013

    When I meet up with a young engineer, or a student, I do tell them that analog is not dead and the fun one can have along this line of engineering. A mentor of mine once said, “Stay in analong and you will always be able to find a job anywhere.” If one is creative this is quite true. And one can even write their own check as well.

    We should look at our time to encourage analog electronics as much as possible and not dwell on the dwindling numbers.

  23. PZman
    August 27, 2013

    Don't forget me fellas. i specialize in audio amps. Going to restore a Realistic 75 amp next. Why? I guess why not. Maybe I'll do a video on it.

  24. Brad_Albing
    August 27, 2013

    @PZMan – One of those old Radio Shack amplifiers? OK, I approve.

    And yes, I should have included you in my list of guys who know the old stuff.

  25. Netcrawl
    August 27, 2013

    I think we don't have shortage on analog engineers; we actually produce some good analog engineers. The reality is we're moving into something new, we're increasingly becoming digital. Almost every in our society is digital, we're losing space or room for analog works.  

  26. Netcrawl
    August 27, 2013

    @Brad I do have some good conversation with my old friend and he said that the main reason why we have shortage in analog engineers is that most companies (today) don't want to hire old people, good analog engineers have years of experience and expertise and years of experiences also requires engineers to be older.  

     

     

  27. Netcrawl
    August 27, 2013

    @Daej analog engineers will continue to play a key role in today's industry. Today's consumer electronic devices are getting much more sophisticated, they're packed with great features and innovations and these means that somebody's got to design those  analog chips and circuitry stuff. 

    @Daej I think the real shortage is on technical people that can switch between analog and digital stuffs and get the job done.

  28. Brad_Albing
    August 27, 2013

    @Netcrawl. It's a sad but true fact. I think employers are hurting themselves this way, tho'. They miss out on an excellent source of knowledge.

  29. Netcrawl
    August 27, 2013

    @PZman good idea and thanks for sharing it, I can't wait to see a video on it, we would like to see some really good old stuff. With “lot of analog muscles” on it.

  30. PZman
    August 28, 2013

    Netcrawl consider it done. I will start soon on the project.

  31. WKetel
    September 3, 2013

    The fact is that while “the world is going digital”, the whole real world is analog and will remain analog. Digital is only a special case of the analog world. As things speed up the digital designers have discovered jus how analog transmission lines are. So except for those who write code all day a bit of analog understanding is important. And for any whose work has to interface with the real world outside of the IC package, understanding the analog side is vital.

    Just because weuse fewer analog computations is no indication that analog is going away.

  32. WKetel
    September 3, 2013

    I am also one of those electronic engineers who had to take a statics class, and it did require a bit of study. But it certainly was not a useless class, at least not the way that it was taught at Lawrence Tech back in 1971. Understanding forces and mechanics is quite important for any who would think that theyare an engineer. And the math was not that hard, although I would not recommend the class for anyone who had not been through the physics classes. The hard course was the one that followed, which was dynamics. I took that course as a junior and consider that it was without question the very hardest course of my college career, bar none. It has also been useful, although I don't recall having to use all of those equations that I learned, the understanding has been very handy for being able to anticipate how things will work.

    BUt it certainly does make sense that courses should be taught primarily as a means of imparting knowledge, rather than as a mine field to reduce the crop of freshmen. That was certainly the way things were run at a state college that I attended for a year. there were around 5200 students, including the graduate students, and almost 4000 were freshmen. That ratio certainly should have told prospective students something.

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