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By Jack Ganssle

Jobs: Implosion or Same Old, Same Old?

Published 10/06/2008

I have never seen my accountant look so terrified.

As I write this on the next-to-last day of September Congress has reached general agreement on a bail-out designed, they say, to stave off a financial crisis whose impact might result in a spike in unemployment. I remain baffled and can't discern where the $700B number came from (why not $200B? Or $900B?). And I am always skeptical of economists. The Dismal Science's predictive powers have long been notoriously bad. But they certainly understand all of these odd financial instruments far better than I do.

If the economy is on the brink of collapse, what does that mean for engineering jobs? A September 5 AP story (http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/E/ECONOMY_TECHNOLOGY?SITE=DCUSN&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT ) suggests that tech is the place to be. One quote: "Payrolls of computer and electronics manufacturers grew 5.1 percent from July to August, according to the Labor Department's data." That's a stunning increase for a single month, especially in the traditionally-slow summer season. Motorola is suffering and letting people go, but their long-seated problems don't necessarily reflect the overall state of the economy. (They are hiring some developers though - see http://news.cnet.com/8301-13505_3-10057440-16.html?tag=mncol;title).

Microsoft added numerous employees in their latest fiscal year. HP, with an amazing 176,000 workers worldwide, continues to hire.

So we techies should be in pretty good shape.

Unless you read http://www.pcauthority.com.au/News/123332,unemployment-rises-in-silicon-valley.aspx from PC Authority. Unemployment in Silicon valley hit 6.6%, a four-year high, for August. That's higher than the country's 6.1% overall unemployment rate.

The previously-cited AP article said that Applied Materials will let 1000 people go, though it's not clear if these jobs were in the Valley or not.

Silicon Valley is likely prone to unusual pressures due to the fantastic cost of property and higher wages than in many other areas of the country (to pay for that $800k starter house). But that area is still a hotbed of innovation and the seat of many of the companies that drive the electronics markets. Applied Material's struggles usually reflect softness in the demand for new semiconductor manufacturing equipment, which might - who knows? - mean slowing chip demand in the future. A search in the careers section of their web site turned up a need for six experienced software engineers, five of which are needed in the Valley. With 14k employees, six open billets for software people is pretty small. But hiring while doing layoffs is always a dicey thing, even when it might make business sense.

Since we recovered from the dot-com implosion forecasts for engineering jobs have been extremely rosy. But this latest financial meltdown seems to have arisen over the course of weeks. Though Senators claim to have anticipated it years - years! - ago, most economic projections I've seen were pretty hopeful until the end of August, when suddenly a cliff appeared in the golden road. So forecasts for the future of engineering employment are probably just as unreliable.

But what do you think? Are you feeling secure in your current job, and what do you think the prospects for engineers will be over the next year or two?