Wireless technology jobs: Opportunities expanding in emerging markets

Published: Jan 28, 2008 1:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Jean M. McLean,

Source: Birmingham News

Search for "wireless jobs" online or in the newspaper, and the reviews are mixed. Most results will be job postings for cell phone service providers and sales.

But those who know the most about wireless technology know that today's hand-held devices are only the tip of the industry iceberg. The "wireless" field, which includes not only cell phones and global positioning units but industrial sensors and security devices, is growing so fast that even industry insiders don't know where it will go next.

That's why companies consult professionals like Dan Bochneak, chief executive with Sentinel Strategies. Bochneak, who has spent 30-plus years in the industry, works with companies to forecast emerging technologies and their market applications.

He also serves as an advisor to Auburn University's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering as they prepare students in the only wireless engineering undergraduate program in the nation.

It's no coincidence that Auburn is preparing engineers for these new jobs. Bochneak cites the engineering school's namesake as a wireless entrepreneur whose Vodafone business model merged into the largest wireless business in the world. Because of Ginn's initiative, said Richard Chapman, Ph.D, associate professor in Auburn's Computer Science Department, new specialists are being trained in Alabama to combine electrical engineering with computer science to meet the needs Bochneak and others forecast.

Wireless workers include a wide range of specialties, from the engineers who research needs and design new devices to those who market, sell and service each component. There are also administrative, accounting and finance specialists who work in these companies. But nothing happens without the engineers who conceive and develop the product.

What do jobs look like in wireless engineering? Some of these professionals will work with the "box" - any hardware that receives and shares data. They might be employed by firms such as Motorola, Nokia or Samsung. Others will work with the software that's in the box, reporting to companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft.

Still others will work with networks, making sure that each device, from industry sensor to iphone to personal computer, can relay and receive information from other devices. Those specialists might work for AT&T, Verizon or other providers.

Like other engineers, those who do well in this emerging field tend to be quick and continual learners, meeting the demands of a rapidly-changing world. Although these workers are trained and organized by specialty, the very nature of the business requires an understanding of the multi-part process.

"Communication and teamwork are absolutely critical skills," said Chapman.

A graduate degree is not necessary to work in this field, Chapman said. "Virtually all of them are getting multiple job offers" with bachelor degrees.

These specialists may work all over the world, but many find employment in Birmingham, Huntsville and Auburn. In addition to working for established firms, some are starting their own companies, meeting newly-identified needs in areas such as agricultural engineering and other disciplines.

Bochneak forecasts growth in what the industry calls "SCADA," for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. One example of this application is the southeast's utility industries. Natural gas distributors and electricity providers need wired and wireless technology to gather data on their critical infrastructure - dams, pipelines, plants and other assets. Present-day security threats and the age of these structures now justify encrypted sensors to monitor threats due to security breaches or failing infrastructure.

Other applications abound. A sensor on a bridge, for example, can notify transportation officials of stressors. Railroad sensors could detect leaks in chlorine-carrying cars.

Wireless applications seem unlimited to these researchers. Technology recycles applications, Bochneak said, as manufacturers can't begin to envision all the uses for their products.

Although these developments can trim the personnel needed for labor-intensive jobs, "people are still part of the task," Bochneak said. Workers will be needed to monitor sensors, sell products, provide service and integrate technologies such as satellite and cellular communications. Existing technologies require developers, Bochneak said, to make them "richer," combining multiple services such as televisions with cell phones.

"Wireless is an area for students to consider because it applies to everything in their environment," Bochneak said.

Salaries for wireless jobs range as widely as their applications. Auburn has tracked starting wireless engineering compensation in the low $50,000 range.