Power Supply Jobs and Technology  

ISSUE: October 2009  


Some Glimmers Of Hope in Tough Engineering Times

By David G. Morrison, Editor, How2Power Today

I just read an article analyzing the results of Electronic Design’s latest engineering salary survey. In "Engineers Give Back 2008 Gains In 2009,” Jay McSherry paints an overall bleak picture of the current employment situation for electrical engineers. He cites rising unemployment, falling wages, dissatisfaction among many engineers regarding their compensation, and a sense that there aren’t opportunities elsewhere (at other companies) for better employment.

Bleak stuff. Yet, despite all this, as McSherry writes, “a whopping 84% of engineering professionals still say they would recommend engineering as a career path to a young person looking to choose a profession.” Perhaps, deep down inside, engineers are optimists.

Silver Linings, Here and There

Even in a downturn, there are still pockets of good news to be found. Some suggest better times ahead. A couple of recent news items may bode well for engineers in power electronics.

Earlier this month, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a press release proclaiming, “DOE Announces $87 Million in Funding to Support Solar Energy Technologies.” In this announcement, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said “up to $87 million will be made available to support the development of new solar energy technologies and the rapid deployment of available carbon-free solar energy systems.”

According to the announcement “47 projects with universities, electric power utilities, DOE’s National Laboratories, and local governments have been selected to support use of solar technologies in U.S. cities, help address technical challenges, ensure reliable connectivity with the electrical grid, and train a new generation of solar workers to install and maintain solar energy systems. These projects will help speed adoption of solar energy nationwide, while supporting development of a skilled workforce, and continuing to pursue new scientific breakthroughs to increase the efficiency and lower the cost of solar technologies.”

The goal behind these projects is “to achieve cost-competitive solar electricity by 2015, in addition to developing advanced solar technologies for the future.” Given that that deadline is just a little over five years away, the challenge of making solar electricity cost competitive seems great. But it’s always best to set the bar high. (For more information on the different types of projects being funded, see the Solar Energy Technologies Program home page.)

The success of solar energy systems obviously has implications for power electronics specialists, who will be developing the power inverters and power management circuits needed to make photovoltaic systems effective. As deployments of these systems grow, the associated opportunities in power electronics should grow as well. Judging by the number of solar energy related technical sessions at the recent Energy Conversion Congress & Expo (ECCE) in San Jose, there seems to be no shortage of research on power converters for PV systems. Let’s hope this research speeds the development of commercially successful solar technology.

Another optimistic announcement was issued in early October by Cree. The chip maker announced it would be adding 275 jobs in North Carolina this year as it grows its LED manufacturing capacity to meet rising demands for LED lighting. What’s more, the company expects to add another 300 jobs by the end of 2012.

These jobs are being heralded as “green jobs” by Cree and others. But personally, I wanted to know whether this manufacturing expansion would mean more green engineering jobs. I asked a company representative about the extent to which the new staffing requirements would include engineering positions, especially those related to power electronics. The company couldn’t provide specifics. “We will be hiring at all types of positions—from production workers, to engineers and scientists, to administrative staff like sales and marketing,” said Michelle Murray, a member of Cree’s corporate communications department. However, she noted that open positions will be noted on the company’s website.

Of course, it’s not so much a matter of how many engineering jobs Cree might be generating on its own, but rather that their expansion is another bellwether of growth in the LED lighting industry. I say another bellwether because there have certainly been marketing reports heralding this growth. And anecdotally, there’s evidence that the power electronics industry is benefitting. Witness the growing number of power supply manufacturers with LED lighting product lines. I would also weigh the comments of semiconductor marketing people who have told me that LED lighting has been one of the few bright spots in this economic downturn.

From where the technologies stand today, it would seem that LED lighting has a much clearer path toward widespread commercialization (i.e. success in general lighting applications) than does solar energy. But both technologies seem poised to have as big an impact on the electrical engineering profession as they are projected to have on society at large. Let’s hope that their impact is overwhelmingly positive and soon.

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