It’s not Pollyanna to remember tech jobs remain hot, even amid layoffs

Massive layoffs in recent  weeks at Big Tech companies like Microsoft and Alphabet  have dominated headlines, while the numbers have been far less severe for engineers working in mid-sized firms and startups.

Things are still unsettled, however, for tech CEOs and workers all the way down the line to the new engineering hire. Inflation, worries whether unemployment will rise, the global macroeconomy and the impact of a tragic war in Ukraine all have taken and will continue taking their toll, making job seekers and even the tough-minded worry when clouds will lift.

While it might seem like thin gruel to a laid off embedded designer, one tech recruiting expert told Fierce in recent days there will be (really!) a re-hiring trend coming on the horizon. He said this based on the sheer structural strength of the engineering job sector. That rehiring will come after many in tech, including top executives, finish sulking about what the universe hath wrought. His words are more than a modern lecture on the  power of positive thinking! (No offense intended, Norman Vincent Peale fans.)

“The reality is, there’s high demand for STEM professionals, there just is,” Jason DeKoster, managing director of strategic recruitment at Actalent, a talent consultancy in engineering and the sciences, told Fierce Electronics. “We know there’s going to be a bounceback, and what do we do with that?”

Before talking about bounceback, though, Actalent and DeKoster have offered thoughts about recent layoffs that might give cheer to engineers facing the possibility of layoffs or who have actually felt the pinch (or gut-punch, depending).

Something called “layoff contagion” may have actually affected CEOs and boardrooms, he noted, especially after the biggest layoffs started hitting at the end of 2022 when several big tech companies reported layoffs above 10,000 workers or more. In some cases, DeKoster said, it might have been 10,000 layoffs after 30,000 hires over the prior three years. Or, it might have been thousands laid off in non-technical areas like marketing and sales at the same time thousands of engineers were in the process of being hired at the same company. 

In a recent market brief, Actalent gave two examples:

Boeing announced plans to add 10,000 jobs while eliminating 2,000 jobs through attrition and layoffs in HR and finance with hiring in engineering and production work.   In the other example, Meta cut 11,000 workers (12% of the total work force) after growing its workforce by 144% over four years, a total of 51,000 employees.

In some cases, companies announcing big hires followed by big layoffs had expected sizeable numbers of workers to quit of their own volition, based on historical trends, then found not as many did actually quit as expected.  (Some engineers and software designers hop around every two years to find better work and better pay, but that trend could have slowed, depending on the geography or job title.)

But back to this layoff contagion. Actalent wrote as big companies lay off and stock prices increase as a result, it leaves other CEOs and boards to ask, “Should we be laying off too?” Or, as DeKoster put it, “With a lot of organizations there’s a bit of contagion when it comes to layoffs. Companies may so, “Other companies are doing this, oh s---! Should we be doing this?”

Again, DeKoster takes the long view. Whether company boards are fools or damn fools or wise beyond their collective years may not really matter, ultimately. Both sides of the equation – laid off engineers and the boards and CEOs that laid them off—face a period of preparation for what he calls the inevitable bounceback of jobs, which by the way are growing over the entire US economy, although the February jobless report will be announced March 10 to verify that trend or question it.

RELATED: To a laid off engineer, so what if the nation’s jobless rate is down to 3.4%?

DeKoster may sound like an optimistic Yoda, but it is what you expect from a top-notch recruiter.  “At all times, industries are going through difficult turbulence,” he said. “Right now, EVs and chips are hot, utilities are hot. With the aging workforce, medical devices and infrastructure needed for the aging are needed. We continue to invest and we have to do it because of the speed of change. Part of being employable in the future is continuing to gain skills.”

Speaking of investment, the federal investment in domestic semiconductor production through the US CHIPS Act is another example of coming jobs growth that means a strong future for electrical engineers, and many related jobs.  The Semiconductor Industry Association recently updated a tally of $200 billion in private investments in 16 states for more than 40 new chip ecosystem projects that will create 40,000 jobs in the next decade. An entire list is online.

Remaining employable

What “being employable” and continuing to gain skills means for engineers, working or laid off, and what it means for employers are actually two sides of the same training and development coin.

For companies, it means offering training and job advancement opportunities. For a company committed to making EVs that needs 1,000 engineers to grow, it could mean a lengthy recruitment process or something akin to training and job duties that help grow the capabilities of its existing work force

“Technology requires people,” he said.  “You need attraction, retention and engagement of people. Engagement means you need people on fire to be at their job, to make an impact on the company. “  For attraction, a company must find workers who show “character over competence,” with a work ethic and attitude to fit the company culture. One hiring tip is to let hiring managers get more involved in job descriptions: “Be clear about what you actually need employees to do.”

“Generically, many companies are looking at how they hire and who they have [on board] in a very important and potentially different way,” he added. “The number one asset is the people they have, to create effectiveness and efficiency.”

On the side of engineers—those laid off or still working in fear of the possibility of layoff--DeKoster urges they demonstrate a desire to grow and learn and take on projects that are a challenge. Still, it can be hard to think this way amid fears of recession and layoffs.

“People today are questioning how safe am I?  In the hierarchy of basic needs, number one is safety--will I have continued employment here? “  Part of the response could be reflecting on one’s achievements. A highly qualified engineer with an R&D specialization in a lab can see such skills being needed in many tech companies, even within his or her current employer.

“There’s been such a push for many, many years around STEM and in some ways it is futureproof because of the way our world will evolve. And people are needed to evolve,” DeKoster said. “You will have blips, but in the long run it will continue with many jobs in the future.”

If you are laid off or worry you will be, or if you are a manager in the position of cutting headcount, you might want to share your story: [email protected]