Industry article

Firmware skills shortages in the USA

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Tudor Kimber
Posted on 17 Apr 2023 · 6 mins read

In this blog, Technical Talent by Murray we discuss why firmware specialists have never been more highly sought after. This issue is probably most acutely felt within the US where a large number of employers are battling over a relatively small pool of talent.

As we all know, the growth of technology continues at pace and demand for skills of all types shows no signs of abating. However, along with a shortage of physical hardware – namely semiconductors in recent years – businesses are also facing a global dearth of specialist talent, not least in the firmware market where broad skill sets and wider competencies are highly sought after around the world. This issue is probably most acutely felt within the US where a large number of employers are battling over a relatively small pool of talent. But what is driving demand for firmware expertise in the United States and what skills are particularly highly sought after?

Talent in demand

It's obviously not just within firmware that employers are facing talent shortages, this is a problem plaguing the entire tech arena, however firmware probably suffers more than most largely due to its status as the less ‘sexy’ field than many others. As an example, Israel, far smaller than the US market by many orders of magnitude, has a shortage of 15,000 firmware engineers, and this figure is only likely to increase. While engineers in software and product development get the glory, firmware professionals are largely in the background delivering the less visible, but utterly fundamental role of developing software designed to control hardware devices. Without firmware, most devices are just useless boxes of tech and its use covers almost every possible device and area of technology; from washing machines through to smartphones and more. Writing compilers, mappers and optimization software does not deliver the same level of glory as developing new AI algorithms, or a new smart phone app. But without them, the whole industry will suffer.

This is a highly specialised field and it doesn’t come with packages and pre-set building blocks as areas like software development do; in most cases you are quite literally starting from scratch when building new product architecture. Along with fairly obvious competencies such as programming skills and the ability to use languages like C, Assembly and Python, firmware professionals must also have an intrinsic understanding of the market’s adjacent fields and should also be experts in both hardware and software engineering in order to be able to do their jobs effectively. They need to be familiar with hardware architecture, its specifications and limitations and ultimately how it works. Professionals in this field also need debugging and communication skills and to be highly adaptable to the rapidly changing developments with new technologies and techniques.

Unknown territory

In discussions with some of our US-based clients it has been highlighted that, for many, firmware is a fairly unusual and challenging concept for software specialists who are used to an environment where many problems have already been solved, however this inventiveness and the creation of an entire underpinning architecture is exactly what they enjoy about their roles. It’s a highly complex craft however it’s probably fair to say that education pathways don’t keep apace with developments within the working world, with engineering education splitting even more between hardware and software, rather than merging the two.

In response, many universities are increasing the number and breadth of their AI and Machine Learning courses, however the supply of suitable people taking on these courses is limited and there is enormous demand for graduates. In particular, universities in the likes of Washington state and California, as well as Toronto and Ontario in Canada, are recognizing the need and are attempting to address it.

A variety of competencies

Even still, the ideal candidate is hard to find in the USA; leading companies are seeking professionals with cross-industry competencies, for example, a degree in mathematics, potentially also in computer science and then some sort of qualification in the aforementioned newer fields. They’ll also need to have a pre-existing understanding of platforms like Tenserflow as well as being able to apply all of these skills and knowledge in a coherent way. If that sounds complex, it’s because it is and, with so many new processors and accelerator architectures being created, and so many new skills required, companies are finding it hard to hire enough specialists. Still, everyone knows they have to find those people to meet the demand driven, not just by the ongoing growth of the tech market, but also the emergence and increasing importance of fields like the Internet of Things, cybersecurity, cloud computing and the aforementioned areas of AI and machine learning.

Ultimately, these firmware specialists are out there, particularly in the US, but the pool of talent is relatively small, and is likely to be dwarfed by company demands for a number of years until the market and education systems catch up with this continually evolving industry. If your organization is seeking firmware specialists, or if you work in the field and are seeking a new role yourself, then don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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