Designers made more money in 2009 than the year before, but most were just happy to still have jobs.

Another year older, another year wiser.

The aging (graying, some say) of the printed circuit board design field continues, with nearly 60% of respondents in the annual PCD&F designer survey reporting 20 or more years’ experience. But with age does happiness come? Or are designers becoming more cynical about their chances for survival in this era of automation
and outsourcing?

A few notes about the data. Starting in late April, PCD&F undertook a three-week survey of its subscribers who indicated they perform bare board design. A total of about 400 subscribers worldwide – about 100 more than in 2008 – completed an in-depth questionnaire covering salaries, job functions and titles, benefits, education, and satisfaction with their career choices.

The majority of respondents indicated they work for OEMs, though the numbers are declining. This year, OEM designers represented 65.9% of roughly 400 responses, down from 70.5% in 2008. Design service bureaus represented 8.6%, nearly flat with 2008. Those working for an EMS company represented 3.9% of respondents, while PCB fabricators and consultant/educator received 2.2% of responses, respectively (Figure 1).

High-reliability products were most frequently identified as the employer’s primary end-product, with government/military/avionics/marine/space the top response at 21.7%. Communication systems/equipment came in second at 13%. In 2008, the two were reversed, with communication systems/equipment leading 17.5% to 15.6%.

Industrial controls/equipment/robotic remained third, with 10.3%. Consumer electronics had 9.3%, while electronic instruments/ATE design and test had 9% of responses in 2010 (Figure 2).

The field remains heavily male, as men represented 85.3% of survey participants. In 2008, men made up slightly more, with 86.1%.

The youngest participant this year is 23-years-old, from Somerset, UK. The oldest respondent is 72, a designer in Burbank, CA. Overall, 41% of respondents are over 50-years-old.  

The average salary globally based on this survey is approximately $79,000 (all values in US dollars unless otherwise stated). The highest salary reported was $160,000 (a US designer with a master’s in electrical engineering); the lowest salary came from India at 13,000 Rs (US$283). The lowest salary reported in the US
was $21,000.

There was a significant discrepancy between those receiving raises in 2008, and those receiving raises in the past 12 months. Seventy-two percent of designers indicated they received a salary increase in 2008. Comparatively, only 49.9% of designers received salary increases in the past 12 months, while 42.4% said their salary remained the same, and 7.8% saw a reduction in salary. Some 43.8% of respondents received a bonus in the past 12 months.

Most employees stayed put: Only 5.8% said they took a position with a new employer in the last year, down from 9.3% in 2008. In the past year, 5% indicated they had been laid off, up slightly from 4.3% in 2008.

Not surprisingly, health insurance topped the list of benefits offered by the designers’ firms, at 87.3%. Dental insurance came in a bit lower at 78.4%. Nearly seventy-five percent of respondents are offered a 401(k) plan option, and 74.5% receive life insurance benefits (Figure 3). Some 8% reported receiving no benefits.

No degree required. A college degree still isn’t required for entry into the field, but it’s gaining steam. Close to 60% of respondents said they have attended college but lack a bachelor’s degree. Those attending college for one to two years or who have an associate’s degree constituted 31.3% of respondents. Twenty-six percent said they went to college, but do not have any degree. High school graduates made up 4.4%, almost half of 2008’s respondents.  

Fourteen percent of designers who took the survey have a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, and another 10% have a BA/BS in a field other than EE. Some 8.3% have a master’s degree in EE, business, or another field. About 1.5% said they have done some post-graduate work; 2.5% say they have performed engineering graduate work. Less than 1% of respondents have a Ph.D.

The trend toward better educated designers could be explained multiple ways. It could be that employers are  looking for degreed staff, or that they are adding design work to traditional engineers’ responsibilities. Other possible factors are that the least educated designers were the first to be let go during the downturn, or that employed designers are continuing their education even after entering the field. To the latter point, 54.8% of respondents said their companies offer tuition reimbursement. In addition, 35.5% said they were CID certified; 63.4% are not, and 1.1% are in the process of certification.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents are either satisfied with their current yearly compensation or very satisfied, while 23% are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.

Firmed up. Most designers work at large companies. Asked about their employers’ staffing levels, 43.2% of respondents said more than 1,000. The next highest response – 19.4% – said their employer has between 251 and 1000 employees, while 10.8% have 101 to 250 employees. Ten percent said 51 to 100 staff members work for their company, while 6.4% work in a small environment of 26 to 50. The remaining 10% have fewer than 25 employees.

Likewise, in terms of revenues, 22.5% of respondents work at firms with annual sales of $1 billion or more. Another 22.2% said the company brings in $100 million or more annually. Just 12.7% said their firm has sales of less than $5 million.

For the most part (46.3%), designers who responded to the survey spend their time on PCB design and layout as a principal job function. PCB engineering is the second-place principal job at 13.6%, while 9.4% answered design/layout management. PCB layout only is the main role for 8.6%, and engineering management had 5.5% of responses. See Figure 4 for other primary job functions.

When asked whether designers are satisfied with the potential for advancement with their current employer, 38% were satisfied or very satisfied, while 25% indicated dissatisfaction or extreme dissatisfaction, while a large portion, 35.5%, had no opinion one way or the other.

In the 2010 survey, 35.2% of respondents said “senior PCB designer” best describes their job title, while 17.2% said “PCB designer” (Figure 5). Despite the titles, the job appears to be something of a solo venture, as evidenced in Figure 6. Very few designers directly supervise a substantial number of employees, while 73.7% said they have no direct reports at all.

Despite the substantial number of under-50 designers, the years of experience are striking, with 20.8% having 26 to 30 years of experience and nearly 20% having over 30 years under their belts. About 60% of the 400 respondents have more than 20 years of experience, which means only 40% aren’t nearing retirement any time soon. Are young people learning the trade?

Missing microvias. The technologies that respondents most often directly engineer, design or layout are four to six layers (84.8%), double-sided PCBs (83.9%), and seven to 10 layer PCBs (62.6%). Technologies worked with far less are MCM (10.8%), system-on-chip (SoC) (9.1%) and system-in-package (SiP) (9.1%). In 2008’s survey, BGAs were used by 61.3%; this figure inexplicably dropped to 52.9% in 2010. Microvias/HDI also dropped significantly, from a usage rate of 45.7% in 2008 to 34.9% this year (Figure 7).

The amount of work designers take on remained relatively constant with 2008, with 27.7% saying they produce six to 10 new designs per year. (In 2008, this number was almost identical, at 27.5%.) Those producing one to five new designs in 2010 constituted 23.5%, compared to 20.2% in 2008. As with 2008, designers working on 11 to 15 new designs stayed at 15%. The remaining respondents, nearly 34%, work on more than 15 designs annually.

When asked about which products or services the designers evaluate, recommend, specify or approve, more than 75% chose CAD software; 48.8% added fabrication services, and 38.8% said design services. These were the top three responses in 2008 as well. Over 30% of respondents specified connectors and cables, prototyping services, CAM software, active and passive components, assembly services, CAE software, and solder mask (Figure 8: click here).

Most designers who answered the survey said they have the ability to recommend or specify products (nearly 64%). Far fewer evaluate and approve product purchases (23.2%). Thirteen percent indicated they have no purchasing power whatsoever. 

As in past years, we asked, What do you think will be the biggest challenge(s) you will face in 2010? We received a total of  231 responses to that optional question, which could loosely be grouped into four categories: Keeping Job, Outsourcing, Technology and Other. Some 77 indicated that some combination of keeping their job or not seeing their work outsourced was their biggest concern. For such a heavily technical field, that’s remarkable. Another 47 listed their workload. Many echoed a US designer with 30 years’ experience who said, “The biggest challenge that I will face as a designer in 2010 is to remain employed. For the past decade my company has been creating design centers in Asia. Over the past few years I have seen approximately 60% of the design work sent overseas. It is my expectation that in the near future, the number will increase to more than 80%. Unfortunately, I do not see a bright future for engineering and design in the US.” 

Of the 72 responses specifically noting technical concerns, most had to do with shrinking component packages, board densities, high-speed designs, or some combination thereof. Relatively few respondents cited problems with CAD or other software tools.

Considering the relative age of the field and the widespread concern over job security, a cynic might suspect a lack of opportunities is what’s keeping designers in their current environments. Yet, as the survey shows, designers overwhelmingly are satisfied with their career choice. More than 87% said they are satisfied or very satisfied, while a minor 3% said they are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.

Current job satisfaction ranked high as well, with 75% claiming they are satisfied or very satisfied. Only slightly more than 8% said they are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their current position.

Is it just possible that age and experience bring contentment? 

Chelsey Drysdale is senior editor for PCD&F (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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