Analog Electronics Economics Engineering Politics

Possibility of Recession

I’m sure it’s one of the first times I’ve ever thought this, but right now I’m really glad I didn’t go into finance for a career. OK, that’s untrue, even though the money is good for them, I’ve always recognized that the lifestyle stinks. But holy moly, those guys (and gals) are probably not having a great time right now, even if they’ve socked away money before this month.

As any part-time pessimist would do in rough economic times, I’ve been thinking about work and how I could be affected by an extended recession. I’m not too worried that a possible economic downturn will have me out on the street tomorrow, but of course I wonder what might happen in the near- to mid-future. Furthermore, being the perpetual optimist, I am trying to see how a recession could be good not only for engineers, but also for engineers (and others) in Generation Y. So for now, forget about golden parachutes, let’s think about silver linings:

  1. Hard times — You know what people who were around in the depression era love talking about? Hard times. You know why? Because they made it, that’s why. So listen up! They weren’t handed jobs and houses and pre-packaged suburban Lego™-kit lives. They put up with some sucky times and earned a lot of what they got. Fast forward 80 years and you have Generation Y, the helicopter parent driven careers with high salaries and lower skill levels than many engineers leaving school 20 years ago. I’m not saying I’m not grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the work I’ve been allowed to do, I’m just saying that a wake up call could help our generation in some subtle ways. Who knows, maybe in 80 years we’ll be the ones telling the young whippersnappers how good they have it.
  2. Weak dollar — I hear a good deal on NPR about how the credit crunch is the most worrisome aspect of a flailing economy and I agree it can really hurt companies if they do not have access to capital. Poor cash flow through one business can affect the next and the next and so on because companies are not capable of buying the products they need to get their job done. However, something a lot of economists are failing to mention is how the bailout and the economy in general is pushing the dollar to new all time lows. For engineers, with jobs being outsourced daily, this can be somewhat good. It has been cost effective to send manufacturing jobs overseas and even some design jobs, but that has been because of discrepancies in currency (no thanks to the Chinese government). If the value of the dollar drops off, it’s unlikely that textile mills will be popping up in Cleveland like they do in Malaysia or India. But maybe a few more manufacturing jobs will stick around. And maybe a manager or two will think twice about the equivalent cost of sending a design job overseas where they might have to spend some extra time fighting the language barrier.
  3. More start-ups — Somewhere along the way, bright young entrepreneurs who can’t get jobs at their local global conglomerate because of a hiring freeze end up saying “Hey, I can start a company! I’m already not making money, it wouldn’t be any different!” Don’t believe me? Google started in 1998. It flourished through the entire tech bubble mess. Yeah, there’s an example for you. Hard times, especially when it’s hard to get loans or credit, make the environment particularly well suited to software start-ups, where fixed costs (factory equipment, raw material, Swingline staplers) are much lower than they would be for a widget making facility.
  4. Repair — Some of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in electronics was trying to fix something that was already broken. I’m trying to fix a broken piano right now and it’s already been an enlightening experience. In the spirit of all things renewable, why not fix the gadgets we have instead of creating new ones we don’t need (“Oh look, this refrigerator has GPS!”). As the world goes more digital and parts get smaller, there’s less troubleshooting and more “throw out that board, put in a new one”. But even having younger engineers analyze failures on a system level can have a positive effect on their understanding of said systems.

I would love to tell you that everything is hunky dory and that the economy will have a continually positive growth rate forever. But seriously, that’s politicians’ jobs to lie about that. I’m just saying that in the event of a recession, people deal. I’m not planning on going all grapes of wrath and trying my hand at farming in the dust bowl, but I feel (perhaps overly) confident that I’m flexible enough to weather any economic storm brewing on the horizon. Do you think you are? Let me know in the comments.

By Chris Gammell

Chris Gammell is an engineer who talks more than most other engineers. He also writes, makes videos and a couple podcasts. While analog electronics happen to be his primary interests, he also dablles in FPGAs and system level design.

16 replies on “Possibility of Recession”

I really really disagree with the article on helicopter parents. Did you read the original referenced post where the guy talks about Brady Quinn and his agent? Just because the parents of “rich kids” (which such a vague term here it’s ridiculous) find cushy jobs for their children isn’t really an excuse for the parents of middle class freshouts to go around wheeling and dealing for their kids. The original poster in that discussion (I think his name is Ryan) says that he welcomes the help so that he can do it himself next time after seeing the process happen. Who is to say that his parents won’t swoop in the next time? One of the hallmarks of the whole helicopter parent phenomenon is that they’re not really invited to be helicopter parents; they just do it. Surprising though it may seem to all those parents of millenials, they will not live forever and eventually their children will have to find out about the world on their own, in the same ways that their parents did. Lets not wait until they have a spouse and two children for them to find out they’re not cut out for it. Personally if I were hiring someone and their parents tried to take part in the negotiations, I would scratch them right off the list. How many companies have said they are looking for independent learners, leaders of the future, self-starters, etc. These are all qualities of people who neither seek nor receive the constant help and reassurance of their parents. They might be good at math or writing or know a lot about Java programming, but they need other qualities too.

As for young professionals accepting offers for peanuts because they don’t know what they are worth shouldn’t be looking to their parents, they should be blaming themselves. There are WAY more tools for assessing your own worth in the marketplace now than there were in 1980 ( anyone?) when their parents were looking for jobs, and besides that, anyone who negotiates and accepts an offer without talking to their friends, family, career center, or random people on the street is ignoring tremendous resources. I’ve yet to see or hear of an offer that you weren’t allowed to tell people about, so unless you got an offer from the NSA written on flash paper in invisible ink, tell someone about your offer and talk it over before you accept it. You don’t need your parents to tell you what you already know: don’t be a dummy.

oh, and yeah, I think I’ll make it through the recession. I think my job is pretty secure as long as we keep fighting in the middle east, which doesn’t appear to be subsiding any time soon. I don’t necessarily agree with what’s going on there, but it keeps my lights on.

While I think a Great Depression-scale recession is really something to fear, I think there’s nothing to fear from a normal-scale recession. Sure, people will lose their jobs, but as you point out those things are also good for a reason. All of nature is built on the premise of survival of the fittest — if something isn’t working, it gets trashed for a revised version that will work. I think trying to control our economy to the point of it being “recession-proof” is dumb and misses the point that we’ve gotten to this point (economic superpower) by harnessing the failure and competition for good.

Also, Go Bills.

[…] If power consumption continues to get cheaper and everyone adopts a renewable stance on it, will the environment actually improve? Will there be as much focus on conservation, both in reducing power needed in devices and total consumption per capita (reducing our individual “carbon footprint”)? Will the cheap energy of the future fuel the next boom and pull us out of the doldrums of this dumb recession? […]

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