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Slim Job Market Shocks Engineers

Careers: Instead of fielding offers, a growing number are simply looking for a steady paycheck.

August 20, 2001|KAREN ALEXANDER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nick Powarzynski, 51, worked alongside Suarez at Toshiba's laptop operations in Irvine as an electronics test engineer. In 25 years as an engineer and technician, Powarzynski had never been laid off. He had been at Toshiba for only five years but figured he could retire from the company. If ever there was job security, he thought, this was it. But then he was laid off.

"It was kind of an eye-opener," Powarzynski said.

After leaving Toshiba in the spring, he quickly found work at a small networking firm in Corona del Mar. But that company then lost a major client and eliminated three jobs this month--one of them his.

Powarzynski, who is single and lives in Trabuco Canyon, said he's now looking for part-time work while he attends classes at night to get certification on Microsoft operating systems.

"This time I'm shifting gears," he said, "away from computer manufacturing to the information technology industry, so I can work at any number of companies."

That sort of shift is happening on a wider scale. The survey of electrical engineers showed that 3.2% specialized in computer hardware this year, down from 3.7% two years ago. More engineers also are shifting locations for work, surveys and experts say.

Dudley Brown, managing director of Bridgegate, a high-tech recruitment firm with offices in Los Angeles and Orange counties, said more Silicon Valley workers are considering jobs in Southern California. Brown said the best opportunities for engineers in Southern California are in Orange and Ventura counties, where there is a more diverse base of technology companies than in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica, where there is a heavy concentration of dot-coms.

Experts say the market for engineers is generally stronger in the Midwest, where unemployment is low.

It has been hard for some engineers to accept that employers have become much more selective in hiring. And layoffs have been a shock. The overwhelming majority of engineers--about 80%, according to professional surveys--have never lost a job because of downsizing. Studies also show that many engineers have been with one employer, usually a big company, for a long time.

Rules of the Game Have Changed

"It feels pretty miserable--the lack of security, the feelings of rejection and worthlessness," said Mike Henderson, who was laid off in March from Conexant Systems Inc., a communications chip maker in Newport Beach.

Even with an MBA and experience helping companies develop long-range technology strategies, it was three months before Henderson joined TDK Semiconductor Corp. in Tustin. There was no lucrative signing bonus, and his pay didn't increase as it might have had he switched employers during the boom times. But now Henderson has a job he likes, and for that he is grateful.

"I've always wondered about people who just took a couple of months off and didn't worry about where their next job is coming from," he said. "I was really worried, and I really wondered about that question."

Suarez, the former Toshiba engineer, is still wondering. He has never searched so hard for work. And he's learned that the rules of the game have changed since the last time he was in the labor market, in 1989.

Then, Suarez looked through ads in newspapers, sent his resume out, then followed up with calls to personnel managers at companies. But now, with the Internet, "they don't want people calling," he said. "They just go through e-mail. . . . There's a lack of human interaction."

Suarez has posted his resume on Internet job sites and elsewhere, noting his managerial experience and skills in hardware and software systems integration and testing. What little response he's gotten has been discouraging.

"There are a lot of positions for specific and specialized engineers. They're looking for a niche," he said. "Either those jobs are on hold or the company is waiting for the next quarter for better results. Jobs are listed, but they're not really hiring."

After interviewing at several technology companies, Suarez is now looking to city and government offices, including the California State University system, for a job as a computer systems administrator. He has scaled down his expectations. He earned $72,000 at Toshiba but now figures he probably won't make more than $60,000 in Southern California.

And even though he doesn't want to move his family--his stay-at-home wife and three young daughters--he has begun considering opportunities out of the area. He spends his days combing the Internet for job listings, attending seminars at the state's employment office and working in the yard outside his Mission Viejo home. To Suarez, his electrical engineering degree and experience were synonymous with jobs.

"That's what I thought," he said.

*

Times staff writer Don Lee contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Engineer Work Force Slowdown

Although engineers still have it good in the labor market, massive layoffs at high-tech companies are beginning to take a toll. The engineering work force shows signs of tapering off, and the unemployment rate has doubled in the last year.

*

Unemployment rate for Engineers (U.S.): 2.0%

Engineering Work Force (in millions): 2.16 million*

Earnings Median weekly gross: $1,104

*

Where Electrical Engineers Work

*--*

Industry Pct. Communications 18.8% Computers 12.1 Electronic manufacturing 11.5 Utilities 9.5 Consulting 8.1 Defense (not aerospace) 8.0 Education 8.0 Aerospace 7.2 Other 17.0

*--*

*

Engineers by Type, 2nd Quarter 2001

Electrical: 35%

Mechanical: 16%

Civil: 14%

Industrial: 12%

Aerospace: 4%

Chemical: 4%

All others: 15%

*

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

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