Matt Joplin had a job before he even graduated.
The company, BAE Systems, essentially came to him.
“I’d never even heard of BAE Systems,” he said.
In 2018, a few months before Joplin earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, representatives from the company approached Daniel Loveless, UC Foundation associate professor in electrical engineering, asking if he had any students graduating soon. If he did, the company would like to chat with them.
“I get calls every few days asking, ‘Hey, can we get one of your students?’” Loveless said.
The people on the other end of the call are looking for students well-versed in microelectronics, which has exploded in the past few years. Microelectronics are in everything from smartphones to spacecraft, from enormous computer systems to automobiles. There are tons of jobs out there in the field, but not enough people to fill them.
“It’s a niche area and, while it’s small, it is absolutely critical and there’s nowhere near the right level of workforce right now,” Loveless said. “We’re seeing people being hired in rapid-fire succession.”
Joplin is a testament to the desperate need, having landed jobs with two different employers—BAE and NASA—in the past two years.
“I think that any student who’s got a microelectronics background is going to be able to find a job in one place or another,” said Joplin, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at UTC.
When Loveless came to UTC six years ago, one of the areas he wanted to expand was microelectronics. People in the industry now see UTC as one of the prime universities to approach when they need microelectronic engineers.
“It’s hard to actually keep people in school to focus on this stuff,” Loveless said.
One of the major projects UTC students are working on now is the Scalable Asymmetric Life Cycle Engagement Consortium, or SCALE. Funded by a $400,000 grant from the Strategic Radiation Hardened Electronics Council (SRHEC), part of the U.S. Department of Defense, the project is aimed at creating a pipeline of new engineers researching the effects of radiation on microelectronics used in spacecraft.
BAE Systems is a multinational defense, security and aerospace company headquartered in the United Kingdom and operating in the U.S. and worldwide.
A solution for eliminating—or at least lessening—those effects is critical for companies involved in the commercialization of space and programs to improve modern defense systems.
SCALE is beneficial on several levels, said Michael McKenna, a radiation systems engineer at MDA supporting SRHEC and SCALE. Students can pursue research on areas of interest to the agency and, at the same time, get an inside look at microelectronics that might nudge them into choosing it for a career, he explained.
“It allows us to not only work on problems that are important to us and get actual usable solutions,” McKenna said, “but it’s a way that we can actively engage students when they’re still at a point where maybe they’re deciding what they would like their career field to be.”
In doing so, SCALE also may help develop a larger available workforce for industries that use microelectronics, Loveless said.
“In general, the commercial sector of electronics targets very high performance, but reliability is sacrificed,” he said. “People don’t care if their cellphone doesn’t work after two years because they care about the latest feature and they’ll buy a new one.
“Spacecraft and these sorts of missions fundamentally depend on the reliability of the components, and that’s all that we focus on,” he continued.
“At the end of the day, students who know how to design within this extra set of constraints—meaning they design systems that can
operate hot or very cold, in a vacuum, under extreme pressures and under exposure to radiation—they’re well-equipped to tackle just about any design problem in engineering.”
Along with DoD, UTC students can tackle jobs at, among others, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Goddard Space Flight Center, the U.S Army, Air Force and Navy, the British spaceflight company Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
“It’s what I try to tell the students,” McKenna said. ”It’s very nice in the sense that there’s a huge demand, and it spans so many different industries, and it’s so global. There are lots of opportunities.”
Joplin stepped directly into that global need. After working at BAE Systems in Virginia for a couple of years, he took a job at Goddard Space Flight Center—also in Virginia—about a month ago. Staying at one job for an entire career is not a typical path in the microelectronic industry, he said.
“What I’ve been seeing is there’s quite a lot of movement in people who are early on in their career,” he said. “They don’t tend to stay in the same job, at least not their first job. They’re constantly looking to find something that is better suited to them and experiment with the work they’re doing. Possibly the shortage is what allows them to do that.”
And there’s another advantage. Money.
“The workers gets to set their own terms and have the advantage in a negotiation. There are jobs out there, for sure.”