The Survey Said: A Third of Designers Near Retirement Age


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One of the best parts of this job is keeping in touch with PCB designers. You all are an interesting bunch of people, to say the least, and I enjoy hearing your stories, concerns, complaints, observations about the industry, and whatever else you want to share.

I meet with some of you in person at trade shows during the year. But in between shows, a quick survey is a great way to get a snapshot of what you all are going through at the moment.

In July, we sent readers a three-question survey. We’ve noticed that surveys with too many questions often go unanswered. You all are too busy to fill out a 50-question survey at work, so you forward it to your home e-mail address to look at later. Then you get distracted, rightfully so, by spouses, kids, and grandkids. You just don’t have much free time.

But you seem to have time to answer three questions. We had a solid response rate, especially considering it was the middle of summer. The replies are all over the place, particularly when we asked about technology.

Question 1: What is your approximate age?

Figure 1: The “age pyramid” for PCB designers. Who will design boards in the future?

I more or less expected this sort of age distribution, but it’s still jarring to see it this graphically. As you can see from Figure 1 (you might want to click the "enlarge" button), over half of the respondents are 51 and over, and 1/3 of readers are 56 and over. The single biggest chunk of designers is 61 and over.

This is not a good harbinger for the future. How can we draw more young people into this industry?

Question 2: What are some of the challenging technologies you work with on a daily basis? (e.g., HDI, DDR3, differential signaling, high layer-count, etc.)

Here is a short sampling of the more common answers, slightly edited for clarity:

  • High-frequency PCB design.
  • RF, DDR3.
  • The shrinking size of components!
  • Diff pairs.
  • DDR2, SERDES differential signaling.
  • High-voltage isolation, DDR3, SERDES length matching, low-noise design, power/ground and PDN design.
  • The majority of the PCBs I deal with are very plain 2-layer boards. My specialty is not in high complexity, but how to provide beautiful boards at a price so low ordering becomes something you don't think about. Most of my repeat customers don't bother asking for quotes any more.I guess the most demanding "technology" for me is not actually technology, but language. The fabs I source from don't speak English, so it really puts my Chinese language skills to the test.
  • Fine-pitch BGA, HDI, filled via-in-pad, high temperature (175°C), thermal management.
  • HDMI DDR3 differential signaling, high signaling (14G) 16 to 20 layers.
  • 100Gbps channels, embedded actives.
  • HDI, DDRx, extreme copper weight, RF, thermal dissipation, .3mm-.4mm parts, ultra-low-noise circuits, 60-100 amp switching power supplies, planar core transformers, inductors, EMI-EMP, rigid and flex, medical and aerospace.
  • HDI, high speed, lack of industry knowledge of customers.
  • The challenges here all have to do with high power. So, voltage clearance, high current, heat issues, etc.
  • High layer count The challenges here are all to do with high power. So voltage clearance, high current, heat issues etc.
  • DDR4, rigid-flex, FPGA-PCB pin swapping.

3. What is the best part of your job? Whether it's the design process itself, your great co-workers, your upcoming retirement, or something else, let us know!

  • Generating end products for use in space applications.
  • The design process. As a service bureau, every job is different, with its own unique problems to resolve.
  • The beach house it pays for.
  • Working with a great bunch of people.
  • Being paid to do puzzles all day.
  • Learning new stuff.
  • Our working environment would be the main reason that I still do this kind of work. Also, PCB layout designing is like playing Tetris all day!
  • Parts placement is actually a fun puzzle.
  • Working on new technologies for a great company, with occasional travel.
  • Upcoming retirement in less than 18 months.
  • With exception of our manager, no one is an expert in everything and everyone seems to chip in their part, which makes it all come together.
  • The design process itself, plus great co-workers.
  • The best part is working on international projects and creating sophisticated layout with high-end tools.
  • Made a living doing this since for the last 36 years and enjoy doing it. Moonlight on the side doing it for former contacts. However, I do look forward to retirement down the road.
  • Having the knowledge, gained by years of experience, to look at design proposal and see several ways it could be done. Being allowed the opportunity to build "designer confidence" by attending trade shows, reading tech articles and networking in turn allows me to build the confidence of a design team in my abilities is the best part of my job.
  • I have a lot to learn yet!
  • Sitting by a window and drinking coffee.

There you have it. You all love your work, and you enjoy collaborating with your co-workers. And I bet most of you enjoy sitting by a window and drinking coffee as much as that witty respondent. But we’re in danger of losing a big group of designers over the next decade or so. What can we do about the graying of our industry?

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