The "Great Recession" that the economy is still recovering from saw corporate hiring freezes, downsizing and cost-cutting initiatives that placed additional responsibilities and stress on design engineers.
It forced those fortunate enough to keep their jobs to do more with less, and in less time as product development cycles shrunk. For many design engineers, that meant expanding their expertise outside of their chosen disciplines and learning new, sometimes complicated, technologies while working longer hours to meet shorter deadlines.
If some economic soothsayers are right, the worst is over and companies are beginning to hire again. But finding engineers to hire may present a challenge. The lack of qualified science, technology, engineering and mathematics job candidates has been heralded to near hysterical levels. President Obama even made a point to call out engineers in his recent State of the Union address.
"Real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy," he said. He was addressing, in part, the so-called "brain drain" issue where foreign students get educated in the U.S. and then return to their home countries because immigration laws make it difficult for them to stay here.
Trumpeting the demand for engineering skills from a national stage is a positive sign for a future fix, but design engineers need help now if companies are going to innovate their way out of the recession.
Temporary Fix or New Paradigm?
To cope with the stresses placed on their engineers, many companies have turned to hiring outside expertise to help them with a particularly thorny design issue, a complicated simulation analysis, IT management or the prototyping and testing process. Consultants and service providers are a safety valve that, when implemented successfully, releases the pressure on overworked engineers. They offer a number of benefits if properly integrated into a design process:
1. Specific expertise when it's needed without the expense when such expertise is no longer required.
2. No upfront investment in new hardware or for software licenses you may not need that often.
3. The ability to fill knowledge gaps while you get up to speed on a new technology or process.
4. The opportunity to learn from someone with an outside perspective who is familiar with best practices.
5. The ability to offload less technical, but time-consuming aspects of your work so that you can concentrate on more important tasks.
Thanks in part to the Internet, which makes it easy to work from anywhere, and in part to the recession, which turned untold numbers of laid off professionals into freelance service providers, the increased use of the service model is here to stay. Many company executives like paying for work as needed during busy periods and saving that cost during down times, while many contractors enjoy the flexibility of scheduling work around other priorities, and choosing their clients.
One More Skill to Learn
If not managed correctly, working with outside expertise can quickly switch from saving time and money to wasting them. Engineers who work with outside service providers often become de facto managers--a role they may not be prepared to take on.
The need for engineers to manage outside resources takes us back to the beginning: overworked engineers being forced to learn new disciplines. However, learning to work with outside expertise is a skill that can pay dividends in time savings.
Just keep in mind that contractors--especially if they're working off site--need clear guidelines, expectations and deadlines communicated to them. Ongoing progress reports are key. Their work should be reviewed and critiqued just as a full-time employee's is.
Use this issue of Desktop Engineering to identify when to consider hiring outside design, simulation, and IT expertise, or prototyping and testing service providers. We've interviewed various experts who explain the potential benefits of using consultants and service providers. It's a bit of a departure from our regular coverage of hardware and software tools, but we think its a trend worth investigating.
Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.