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[Electrical] Engineers on the brink of extinction threaten entire tech ecosystems

Multicore

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This opinion piece in The Register (from summer last year) attempts to explain the shortage of EE recruits some industry is dealing with.


While computer science course take-up had gone up by over 90 percent in the past 50 years, electrical engineering (EE) had declined by the same amount. The electronics graduate has become rarer than an Intel-based smartphone.

The gist is that when we were young we could develop our fascination for electronics into real skills and knowledge before even going to college ...

This was practical magic, and you could start your apprenticeship by taking the back off a broken wireless. If you had the urge, it was easy to ignite the fascination. Then came the pull of working on the front line of the Cold War, the space age, the era of technological innovation. The industry had its supply of fresh creativity guaranteed.

This remained broadly true until the turn of the 21st century. A reasonably bright kid would realize that the family CRT television was in fact a particle accelerator with its own multi-kilovolt high-voltage generator, plus any amount of repurposable bits and pieces. You can have a lot of fun with that. There were old analog gadgets all over the place. You could peer inside Granny's radio and follow the signal path, component by component. That's all gone now.

It's a short read. Kinda nostalgic but so are a lot of conversations here, right? Enjoy!
 
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sergeauckland

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It's something I've been saying to friends and almost anyone who'll listen. As someone who got into electronics at school, exactly because I was taking old radios and TVs apart and working out how they worked, I then went on to do a degree in electronics, which in those days included thermionic devices, and was very largely maths based. I then went into hardware design, where every function had knob or a switch. A reasonably intelligent person with basic electronics knowledge could look at a circuit diagram and work out what the device did. The same was true for cars, all hardware, no software, everything was mechanical or electrical, and again, a reasonably intelligent person could maintain their own car. If something failed, it could be replaced, if something wore out, it could be replaced.

I can't see how a kid now can take a mobile 'phone apart and get enthused. There's just too much obscure in there, and even if one can work out what each of the assemblies do, there's no way to separate them out as everything is software controlled. Tinkering with stuff, getting tools out, breaking and mending stuff has no attraction as it's pretty pointless.

I know it's an old man writing this, nostalgic for the 'Good Old Days', but as far as getting enthused and learning goes, they were.

S.
 

anmpr1

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Was talking to an acquaintance who teaches EE at a major state university. He's young (PhD from a world famous New England tech-oriented university), in his third year of teaching. Came to the game enthused. But is already frustrated, and thinking of getting another gig. Why? For him it's the university's 'extra-curricular' program that impinges upon his teaching ability. He thinks it's setting both him and his department up for, if not failure, at least not excellence.

He told me that before each new year, the department meets with a 'diversity' counselor. A woman with a 'degree' in something he's never heard of asks him why his department doesn't have the expected student make-up, which means women, and certain minorities. He tells me that half his students could be considered 'minority', but that those students are not the ones she is talking about. He tells her that he'd love to have a classroom with more women and other 'non-represented' groups, but what is he supposed to do? He says the woman's attitude is as if the class makeup is his fault. That he (meaning the department) should be doing 'more' to fix a problem he didn't even know was a problem.

Then, faculty is asked about the department's plan to structure course material to include current social topics--topics that will foster 'inclusion' and be relevant to disadvantaged students? He tells her that he teaches a lot of math. He asks her how he is supposed to merge social problems with circuit design theory?

He tells her that he treats all his students equally, with respect and understanding. He never yells or talks down to them. He doesn't make jokes as he is afraid of unintentionally 'offending' someone. An hour later he comes away from the meeting thinking that in diversity counselor's eyes, he's some kind of trouble maker. Next year he promises to keep his mouth shut during meetings.

However, he's worried that the push for 'inclusiveness' will lead to the department accepting students who are unable to master the coursework, and that he will be held personally responsible for giving a failing grade if they botch the test. I tell him that's just the way it is, and it's the same everywhere, anymore. Besides, I say it's not like he's going to get a job at Bell Labs, where everyone wears white Oxford button down shirts with a pocket protector, and matching skinny black tie, like in the '50s. What can I say? What can anyone say? I'm happy to be retired and happy to be out of it. I want to offer him a drink, but he t-totals. That will probably change after a few more years in the work force.

 
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Multicore

Multicore

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I know it's an old man writing this, nostalgic for the 'Good Old Days', but as far as getting enthused and learning goes, they were.
That doesn't mean it's not also true.

One of the areas in which you can still have fun with electronics is to build your own guitar tube amp. There are lots of kits available and it's of course extra fun because the chance of electrocution is real.
 

radix

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Well, what one can easily tinker with now has changed. It's mostly sensors and actuators glued to microcontrollers, ADC, DAC, and microcoding.

My sister is a teacher at a "tech" high school. She had a student who wanted to learn to wind his own inductors and transformers, so she bought him the special wire and a few cores and he happily went off doing it, then tested them.

Anyway, I mostly agree that the depth of specialization needed nowadays makes the system pretty brittle. I mean, how many people are there would can actually design antennas from nano fibers or layout a sub-micron chip or even do PCB layout for high-speed systems?
 

fpitas

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Well, what one can easily tinker with now has changed. It's mostly sensors and actuators glued to microcontrollers, ADC, DAC, and microcoding.

My sister is a teacher at a "tech" high school. She had a student who wanted to learn to wind his own inductors and transformers, so she bought him the special wire and a few cores and he happily went off doing it, then tested them.

Anyway, I mostly agree that the depth of specialization needed nowadays makes the system pretty brittle. I mean, how many people are there would can actually design antennas from nano fibers or layout a sub-micron chip or even do PCB layout for high-speed systems?
Well...among other things.

I don't even try to explain my job to people. I may as well be speaking a dead language. Other engineers feel the same way, I'm sure.
 

Doodski

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Was talking to an acquaintance who teaches EE at a major state university. He's young (PhD from a world famous New England tech-oriented university), in his third year of teaching. Came to the game enthused. But is already frustrated, and thinking of getting another gig. Why? For him it's the university's 'extra-curricular' program that impinges upon his teaching ability. He thinks it's setting both him and his department up for, if not failure, at least not excellence.

He told me that before each new year, the department meets with a 'diversity' counselor. A woman with a 'degree' in something he's never heard of asks him why his department doesn't have the expected student make-up, which means women, and certain minorities. He tells me that half his students could be considered 'minority', but that those students are not the ones she is talking about. He tells her that he'd love to have a classroom with more women and other 'non-represented' groups, but what is he supposed to do? He says the woman's attitude is as if the class makeup is his fault. That he (meaning the department) should be doing 'more' to fix a problem he didn't even know was a problem.

Then, faculty is asked about the department's plan to structure course material to include current social topics--topics that will foster 'inclusion' and be relevant to disadvantaged students? He tells her that he teaches a lot of math. He asks her how he is supposed to merge social problems with circuit design theory?

He tells her that he treats all his students equally, with respect and understanding. He never yells or talks down to them. He doesn't make jokes as he is afraid of unintentionally 'offending' someone. An hour later he comes away from the meeting thinking that in diversity counselor's eyes, he's some kind of trouble maker. Next year he promises to keep his mouth shut during meetings.

However, he's worried that the push for 'inclusiveness' will lead to the department accepting students who are unable to master the coursework, and that he will be held personally responsible for giving a failing grade if they botch the test. I tell him that's just the way it is, and it's the same everywhere, anymore. Besides, I say it's not like he's going to get a job at Bell Labs, where everyone wears white Oxford button down shirts with a pocket protector, and matching skinny black tie, like in the '50s. What can I say? What can anyone say? I'm happy to be retired and happy to be out of it. I want to offer him a drink, but he t-totals. That will probably change after a few more years in the work force.

Phew! That appears to be a very sticky situation. I'm not sure what I would do in that situatation.
 

Doodski

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Well...among other things.

I don't even try to explain my job to people. I may as well be speaking a dead language. Other engineers feel the same way, I'm sure.
I got sick and tired of hearing, O' so you repair computers!" From people when I explained that I repair electronics at the component level. Back when I did repair gear this is what was asked I'm guessing about 70% of the time. I attempted asking if they wanted a PC repaired and nope they just think I repair computers. :D I try to gentle but there was a time or two that I took control of the conversation and stated that I work on the circuit boards with all the little parts and high accuracy mechanisms controlled by electronics. As I watched them glaze over and lose interest...lol.
 

Dialectic

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A simplistic take, but it is the case that, at elite technical universities, EE courses (especially computer engineering tracks) are generally harder than CS courses. Perhaps Intel, Nvidia, AMD et al. should pay their chip designers higher salaries.

Was talking to an acquaintance who teaches EE at a major state university. He's young (PhD from a world famous New England tech-oriented university), in his third year of teaching. Came to the game enthused. But is already frustrated, and thinking of getting another gig. Why? For him it's the university's 'extra-curricular' program that impinges upon his teaching ability. He thinks it's setting both him and his department up for, if not failure, at least not excellence.

He told me that before each new year, the department meets with a 'diversity' counselor. A woman with a 'degree' in something he's never heard of asks him why his department doesn't have the expected student make-up, which means women, and certain minorities. He tells me that half his students could be considered 'minority', but that those students are not the ones she is talking about. He tells her that he'd love to have a classroom with more women and other 'non-represented' groups, but what is he supposed to do? He says the woman's attitude is as if the class makeup is his fault. That he (meaning the department) should be doing 'more' to fix a problem he didn't even know was a problem.

Then, faculty is asked about the department's plan to structure course material to include current social topics--topics that will foster 'inclusion' and be relevant to disadvantaged students? He tells her that he teaches a lot of math. He asks her how he is supposed to merge social problems with circuit design theory?

He tells her that he treats all his students equally, with respect and understanding. He never yells or talks down to them. He doesn't make jokes as he is afraid of unintentionally 'offending' someone. An hour later he comes away from the meeting thinking that in diversity counselor's eyes, he's some kind of trouble maker. Next year he promises to keep his mouth shut during meetings.

However, he's worried that the push for 'inclusiveness' will lead to the department accepting students who are unable to master the coursework, and that he will be held personally responsible for giving a failing grade if they botch the test. I tell him that's just the way it is, and it's the same everywhere, anymore. Besides, I say it's not like he's going to get a job at Bell Labs, where everyone wears white Oxford button down shirts with a pocket protector, and matching skinny black tie, like in the '50s. What can I say? What can anyone say? I'm happy to be retired and happy to be out of it. I want to offer him a drink, but he t-totals. That will probably change after a few more years in the work force.

This nonsense has been going on for decades at some institutions. I experienced it when I was a graduate student at an elite school in 2007-08. I left graduate school as rapidly as I could because of it. The discipline I left is poorer for my departure and the departures of many wiser students.

Perhaps your friend will move to a country, such as Singapore and the PRC, with less patience for this type of silliness. A brain drain in America's elite universities has become inevitable. (In mathematics, the hard sciences, and the social sciences, U.S. universities owe their exalted position largely to the brain drain that befell European universities beginning in the 1920s.) One hears almost weekly now of elite Chinese-American academics who have decided to resign their U.S. positions and move to universities in the PRC. An ugly state of affairs.
 
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Multicore

Multicore

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Build a radio controlled drone or aircraft?
That's certainly true but one of the points that the article in The Register makes is that this kind of work leads you to software because the drone or aircraft is a computer with sensors, motors, actuators, etc. So some of the kids that do maker stuff with RPis and such end up pursuing careers in software.
 

fpitas

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I got sick and tired of hearing, O' so you repair computers!" From people when I explained that I repair electronics at the component level. Back when I did repair gear this is what was asked I'm guessing about 70% of the time. I attempted asking if they wanted a PC repaired and nope they just think I repair computers. :D I try to gentle but there was a time or two that I took control of the conversation and stated that I work on the circuit boards with all the little parts and high accuracy mechanisms controlled by electronics. As I watched them glaze over and lose interest...lol.
Yeah. In my case, once I was asked if I wire houses. Well, I mean I have...
 

sergeauckland

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That doesn't mean it's not also true.

One of the areas in which you can still have fun with electronics is to build your own guitar tube amp. There are lots of kits available and it's of course extra fun because the chance of electrocution is real.
Maybe it's just trying to recapture my lost youth, but this year's winter project is to build a pair of GEC 912+ amplifiers (EL84 ppul) from scratch, using vintage 1950s transformers but modern components, including metalwork and wooden cabinet. Earlier, I restored a pair of Quad II amplifiers which will be used bridged to drive a single sub in my desktop system, with the 912s driving the main 'speakers.

I've also joined a group restoring vintage equipment for a local museum of Home Entertainment, which has TVs going back to the early 1950s, and radios going back to the 1920s. There's something very satisfying about working on something older than me, and getting it working again.

S
 
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Multicore

Multicore

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Maybe it's just trying to recapture my lost youth, but this year's winter project is to build a pair of GEC 912+ amplifiers (EL84 ppul) from scratch, using vintage 1950s transformers but modern components, including metalwork and wooden cabinet. Earlier, I restored a pair of Quad II amplifiers which will be used bridged to drive a single sub in my desktop system, with the 912s driving the main 'speakers.

I've also joined a group restoring vintage equipment for a local museum of Home Entertainment, which has TVs going back to the early 1950s, and radios going back to the 1920s. There's something very satisfying about working on something older than me, and getting it working again.

S
Sounds great. I want to see photos.
 

sarumbear

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The thing is what would an EE (Electronics Engineer) work on, today? Is there any device category left that employs EEs in vast numbers who work on design, develop or repair?

Electrical Engineers are still widely employed as not much has changed in power generation, transmission and to a certain level motors.
 

Blumlein 88

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The thing is what would an EE (Electronics Engineer) work on, today? Is there any device category left that employs EEs in vast numbers who work on design, develop or repair?

Electrical Engineers are still widely employed as not much has changed in power generation, transmission and to a certain level motors.
I think that is part of it. Among EE's I know, they keep getting shoved into management positions. Engineers would rather engineer than be a manager. I think it is a leverage effect. Electronics can be produced in great numbers so one engineer can be valuable for so many products sold it sort of doesn't take as many as it once did.
 

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The thing is what would an EE (Electronics Engineer) work on, today?
I would suggest with traditional power generation being at the forefront of global warming issues, electrical engineers are now needed in larger numbers to develop renewable energy systems and more efficient electrical devices that reduce energy usage.


JSmith
 

Doodski

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I would suggest with traditional power generation being at the forefront of global warming issues, electrical engineers are now needed in larger numbers to develop renewable energy systems and more efficient electrical devices that reduce energy usage.


JSmith
There is a whole infrastructure there wired, in place and needs a source of energy. :D There are provinces in Canada that are seriously looking into small modular reactors.
 

BlackTalon

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There is a shortage of just about all engineers in the US, at least with respect to building construction. And with all the data center construction that's been going on, in addition to the normal building design and renovation design, electrical engineers (as well as contractors) are very much in demand.

My school is not producing any more engineers than they did in the mid-1980s. It has not been enough to keep up with the two waves of retirements. Improvements in work efficiency allow less people to do more, but at least in the mid-Atlantic area the engineer shortage has been hitting hard for the last few years.
 
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