Hiring Begins Again—Slowly

Some specialties and geographies are better than others. Do you speak VMM or OVM? And how’s your Mandarin?

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By Ann Mutschler & Ed Sperling

After one of the longest downturns in many decades, hiring has started again in parts of the semiconductor industry. No one would call it a hiring boom, and some companies that have been postponing layoffs are still making cuts, but there is definitely is a change under way.

This is evident on some of the job boards, which have postings for engineers with particular skills and in particular locations. Verification engineers are being courted. So are those who understand low-power design. There are even some manufacturing jobs.

“We are seeing things pick up, and it is interesting to see where in the marketplace it is picking up because we’re seeing an increase in companies looking for people with five to seven years of experience that are exposed to a number of technologies rather than specializing in one,” said Dayna Romanick, senior recruiting manager at Silicon Elite. “There’s lots of movement towards OVM and VMM. They’re looking for people that have been exposed not only to the old Verilog but also System Verilog and all the Cs. And they still want the basic assembly.”

The Austin market, where Romanick is located, was hit late with manufacturing impacted more by the recession than the design end in the first go-round. “Now, manufacturing is beginning to pick up,” she says. “Probably 50%. I have a couple of fabs that are looking to add process engineers and Epi people. We haven’t seen that since last July. There are also companies looking for people within the verification space in lots of different areas. There’s lots of IP verification; people are moving towards lots of different microprocessors.”

At least part of that uptick, say industry experts, is due to low inventories. In fact, inventories dropped so low that companies are unable to get new products out the door with enough volume to satisfy consumer demand. Case in point: The new Palm Pre, which was in short supply everywhere.

Geographically, Romanick sees jobs picking up in Research Triangle Park, Austin, and the Midwest. There are a few select companies on the West Coast, but they are few and far between, and companies such as Nvidia and Broadcom are extremely picky about who they’re hiring. “No longer can you get by with a resume that meets most of the criteria. You’d better meet every single thing and then have some extra to offer. And you’d better be willing to accept 25% less than you were making last year.”

In terms of software expertise, she sees a demand for people who have been porting drivers, closer to the embedded space, than just general software. “In Europe, we sponsor the international DVClub. Things are dicey. Money is tight. Very selective again, but manufacturing is beginning to pick up.”

At the management level, hiring is beginning again, as well. “In the last 3 to 6 weeks, we’ve seen the activity level pick up,” said Jack Busch, general partner at Busch International. “I would not say that there’s a dramatic upturn, but there’s a definite movement from Q4 and early Q1.”

Busch noted that things were particularly bad for several months in the startup market. “Sequoia [Capital] put out a memo in October that scared everyone to death and just about all hiring stopped from engineering to CEO to operations to everything. And now, people are realizing they have to go in some directions, so there are definitely some hires on the engineering side. Surprisingly enough, in the startup environment salaries are increasing, not decreasing.”

This is at the senior management level, hiring from outside, from a larger company, because stock has not been worth as much lately, so cash compensation is up. Since 1985, 50 percent of Busch’s business is CEO-level, board of directors and VP level in engineering operations and sales and marketing.

“This downturn has been unique…the others appeared to be cycles, and this one had ramifications outside our industry,” he noted. “In Asia, we have seen investment decrease in Q4 and Q1 over previous quarters particularly on the semiconductor side. ”

But not all of Asia is down. Rama Rathnam, a recruiter at GlobeTec Solutions in Singapore, said hiring there is “zero” and companies have implemented hiring freezes. “But China, Taiwan, India, Malaysia, Japan companies have started to hire. Internal hiring is on. It’s better than the last six months.”

Trading up

Donn Ledwick, who owns recruiting firm Search For Pros, is also seeing an uptick.

“I’m seeing a little myself and I know where there are positions that will open with my clients, and I am hearing that from other recruiters.”

Why is this happening? “Companies want to remain fairly competitive. I think there’s the belief that, ‘OK, we’ve cut our forces, we’re leaner and meaner, but let’s also trade up. Some of the hiring that’s being done is improving the staff and this is a good time to do it. You know things are going to rebound and if you’ve got enough cash, you’re sitting pretty right now. I think there’s an element of that. And confidence is up and it’s trickling into this.”