Networking

Wanted: Workers for wireless communications

Wireless has grown from a techie's dream to a key emerging industry. In this week's Tech Watch, Bob Weinstein discusses the skills that wireless companies are looking for.


Barely a decade ago, wireless communication was on the drawing board. In those days, it was a techie vision. But today, it’s no longer just an engineer’s dream. It’s here to stay and getting bigger every day.

Respected research firms are batting around impressive numbers about wireless’ potential. Ovum projects the number of mobile devices will exceed the magic 1 billion mark by 2003, with a large proportion of them technically capable of mobile e-commerce.

Jupiter Communications projects that 79.4 million browser-enabled mobile phones will be in use by the year 2003, up from only 1.1 million in 1999.

This trend bodes well for technology workers—and job market growth will be particularly strong in the United States.

Wireless in the U.S.
It’s no secret that the United States has not been the world’s wireless technology leader. Europe, particularly Scandinavia, is leading the race with a penetration rate of 60 percent compared to 30 percent in the United States.

Yet experts insist that the United States is coming up fast in the race to dominate the wireless market. Penetration rates are touted as increasing at a faster rate than in Europe.

Wireless research and manufacturing are aggressively expanding throughout the United States. Dallas, for example, has become a wireless Mecca, as giants Ericsson, Nortel, Nokia, and Motorola have set up shop there.

Andre Vacroux, president of National Technological University, a distance education provider in Ft. Collins, CO, contends that wireless technology is the logical extension of the communications industry. But he noted that there’s a national shortage of techies to work in the still-emerging wireless industry. According to Vacroux, there is a particularly strong demand for engineers with radio frequency (RF) and digital signal processing (DSP) backgrounds.

Mike Hurlston, vice president of marketing at Oren Semiconductor, Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer specializing in wireless broadband in Santa Clara, CA, said that “virtually all wireless device companies depend upon DSP engineers.”

DSP engineers understand wireless technology. “Anything that comes through the air or along a cable or phone line is, by nature, an analog signal,” Hurlston explained. “The special technology needed in the wireless world converts analog signals to digital signals. The signals are cleaned up for errors and any corruption that occurred in their transmission is corrected. The result is what’s sent is what’s received.”

Unearthing experienced, as well as entry-level, DSP engineers is the quest of all wireless companies. Even though many electrical engineering curricula are starting to include DSP, there is still a desperate shortage of DSP engineers. The shortage is so severe, in fact, American companies are importing engineers from abroad.
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What wireless companies are looking for
Besides RF and DSP engineers, companies like Oren Semiconductor need software and hardware engineers, as well as chip designers.

“The software engineers create the wireless software according to WAP [wireless application protocol] standards, and hardware engineers build the platform that the software rides on,” Hurlston explained.

According to Russ Gray, managing director of Christian & Timbers, an Atlanta-based executive search firm specializing in technology, wireless companies also need techies with strong network, ISP (Internet service provider), and ASP (application service provider) experience. “A host of skills are needed to support the transition to wireless,” Gray said. “Senior people at the CTO [chief technology officer] level with eight-plus years' experience are even harder to find.”

Oren hires both entry-level and experienced software engineers. On the entry-level side, the hires are typically recent electrical engineering grads who understand DSP. Entry-level engineers can earn between $60K and $70K. Senior engineers can earn $160K because the demand is so intense. “Often, there are bidding wars for experienced engineers with strong wireless backgrounds,” Hurlston said.

But don’t take Oren’s salaries as gospel. Salaries vary around the country contingent upon location, company size, and product line.

All in all, you can’t lose by mastering wireless skills. To get a glimpse of what the demand is like, look at job ads from telecom companies like Sprint, or broadband operations like Oren. A strong wireless background means you can work almost anywhere on the planet.
Is your company looking for workers with experience in wireless technologies? Or are you training current employees on wireless technologies? We’d like to know. E-mail us or post your comments below.

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