Not a week goes by that I do not get an email from a colleague in the industry wanting to hire a recent graduate with experience in signal integrity. Even in an economic downturn, there are more openings for qualified signal integrity engineers than there are current engineers, or recent graduates.
I define signal integrity as a problem which arises when interconnects are not transparent. This means their design influences the noise in an electronic product. When interconnects are not transparent to signals, they have the potential of creating noise and preventing a product from meeting specifications, unless special care is taken in their design.
In almost all products today, interconnects are not transparent. Even in an IoT application, with a 16 MHz clock, switching noise, ground bounce, and EMI may cause a product to fail if the interconnects are not designed with signal integrity in mind. This is why I always say, “there are two kinds of engineers, those who have signal integrity problems, and those who will.”
The gap between the demand in the industry and the supply of engineers with signal integrity design skills is widening. This problem is even more critical in the U.S. defense industry where most engineers must be International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) compliant. This means they must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents with Green Card status. According to the IEEE, the percentage of Ph.D. or M.S. graduates in electrical engineering awarded from U.S. universities who are U.S. citizens is currently less than 30% and has steadily declined since about 2005.
The demand is growing, and the supply of ITAR qualified engineers is declining. This is a national security crisis. As an industry, there are two things we can do to have an impact on this growing crisis.
First, vendors with tools used in signal integrity design or analysis can provide free “student” versions to give both enrolled students and engineers looking to grow their skills, an opportunity to learn by doing. Some large EDA companies such as Ansys, Keysight, and Altium already do this. Rather than cannibalizing the sale of a full seat, these free versions capture mind share and give engineers a taste of the user interface and the capabilities of the tools. Guaranteed, every student learning to use one of these platforms from the student version will be a future user of EDA tools. When they are in a position to influence a purchase, which tools do you think they will recommend?
This goes for hardware as well. Most instruments, such as scopes, VNAs, TDRs, and signal generators are basically computers with some data acquisition analog front or back ends. When it is appropriate, the user interface software can be offered for free to students to practice measurement analysis.
Some scope vendors such as Teledyne LeCroy, Keysight, and Tektronix already do this. Live scope measurements can be recorded, saved in a proprietary format, and uploaded into these “virtual” instruments to be viewed and analyzed, as though they were just recorded. This gives students a taste of the experience of performing a measurement and analyzing the result.
Some scope vendors, such as Digilent, even allow the free version of their scope’s user interface to collect live measurements from a PC sound card input so a student can learn the user interface on real measurements. The next step is to integrate any data streamed over a serial port, such as from a microcontroller’s output, into the scope’s user interface. This would give the students a real-time signal to explore.
Of course, there is no substitute for actual hands-on experience with a real instrument. Hardware tool vendors should consider the option of donating hardware to schools and universities to capture mind share of students and give them exposure to real measurements and inspire them to pursue a hardware engineering path.
The second action industry can take to create more U.S. citizen engineers with experience in signal integrity is to offer scholarships for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Support and invest in your current employees’ growth as an engineer by encouraging them to take a class or pursue a degree in a specialized field. A few universities, such as Penn State, Missouri University of Science and Technology, and University of Colorado, Boulder, offer advanced degrees with a focus on signal integrity.
To grow new engineers, hire a college sophomore as an intern. If they show promise, offer them a scholarship if they pursue a hardware-related degree and bring them back for summers. Supporting and encouraging young engineers will capture their mind share and inspire them to pursue a field that will help keep our industry and economy strong.