Uncertain local job market awaits Qualcomm workers

By Mike Freeman

With layoffs pending at tech giant, workers could need retraining to find positions

As Qualcomm readies to cut thousands from its global workforce, what kind of job market will displaced employees find in San Diego if they want to stay here?

The answer is not as clear as you might expect.

Some experts say the job market is healthy. The countywide unemployment rate is just 5 percent. Local employers have added 38,500 jobs so far this year. Qualcomm lures top-tier engineers to San Diego from around the globe. There’s plenty of demand from the region’s defense, medical device and software outfits for technology talent with a Qualcomm pedigree, say experts.

“If you have to lose a job, this is probably one of the best times for it to happen,” said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Point Loma Nazarene University. “In technology, engineers are in demand, and they can find jobs in San Diego.”

Other experts. however, say the region’s telecommunications and semiconductor sectors are not what they used to be in terms of employment.

Cricket parent Leap Wireless was sold to AT&T and downsized. Nokia has shrunk its footprint locally after being purchased by Microsoft, shedding 129 workers in July alone. Over in Orange County, Broadcom — where skills of Qualcomm employees might best translate — is in the throes of being purchased by Avago Technologies, a Singapore-based serial acquirer that aims to wring $750 million in annual cost savings out of the deal.

San Diego’s semiconductor/electronic components manufacturing jobs declined from 7,700 workers to 5,200 jobs over the past decade, based on data from the Employment Development Department. Telecommunications employment fell from 15,200 to 8,400 over the same period.

Qualcomm President Derek Aberle displays a LG G Flex 2 smartphone that contains Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 chip at a press event at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center for the 2015 International CES on Jan. 5 in Las Vegas.
(Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Finding work in technology industries that are hot today in San Diego — predictive analytics, data mining, cyber security, medical devices — may require retraining for workers with expertise in semiconductor design and radio frequency engineering, said experts.

“I think it’s the nature of the modern world that what’s happening at Qualcomm is just going to happen over and over again,” said Mary Walshok, dean of UC San Diego Extension. “So people need to have fundamental skills. But they also need to add to those skills with what we call niche skills. That will allow them to work in a new niche.”


Qualcomm has not released details of its head count reduction. The company employs about 15,000 full time and temporary employees in San Diego County.

Qualcomm Strategic Realignment

Here are some key targets in the plan.

•15 percent reduction in full-time head count in Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, its mobile semiconductor business. A similar 15 percent reduction is slated companywide, including full-time, part-time and temporary workers.

•Streamline engineering organization

•Significantly reduce temporary workforce

•Increase the mix of resources in lower-cost regions and reduce locations

•Invest in most differentiated technology areas

•Reduction in investments outside of core businesses of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies and Qualcomm Technology Licensing.

In an interview, Qualcomm President Derek Aberle characterized the cost cuts as a reboot for Qualcomm after five years of rapid growth.

“We’ve essentially almost doubled the size of the company,” he said. “So I think through a combination of looking at how we were structured when we were half the size versus where we are today — and looking at where the industry itself is — we felt that we were in a position to restructure in a way to take out costs without losing our leadership position.”

Qualcomm has been stung by slower growth in the smartphone market, the loss of a key chip in Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S6 smartphone and rising competition from MediaTek, Intel and others.

Aberle said the restructuring will put the company on a stronger foundation — not only in the maturing smartphone market but also in new business areas such as connected cars, the data center, the Internet of Things and connected medical devices.

“There are very few companies that are as strongly positioned as Qualcomm in the tech industry generally,” he said. “We’re not sitting over here spooked. We actually are very excited.”

Foreign workers

There is a political undercurrent to Qualcomm’s pending workforce cuts. The company has supported immigration reform for highly skilled workers — saying it can’t find enough qualified Americans to meet its needs. Qualcomm has applied for thousands of H-1B temporary work visas for foreign workers over the years, and has received hundreds of approvals.

The company said it has used the visas to hire foreign students educated at U.S. universities in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.) If tech companies can’t hire these U.S.-educated foreign graduates to work in this country, the firms will be forced to move their research and innovation centers offshore where they can hire the talent they need.

Qualcomm Employment

Total global head count at end of the company’s fiscal year, including full-time, part-time and temporary workers.

Sept. 2014 31,300

Sept. 2013 31,000

Sept. 2012 26,600

Sept. 2011 21,200*

Sept. 2010 17,500

Sept. 2009 16,100

*Acquired Atheros Communications in 2011, adding roughly 2,000 workers.

But during layoffs, these claims of a shortage of American tech workers come under scrutiny.

Southern California Edison and others have taken political heat for laying off American tech workers and replacing them with H-1B workers from outsource information technology providers.

Microsoft was criticized in Congress for calling for more H-1B visas as it was cutting 7,800 jobs.

“Typically, companies hold onto their H-1B workers well after they have let huge numbers of their American workers go,” said Russell Harrison, director of government relations for IEEE USA, a technology industry trade group. “The companies will say, ‘They’re not in the same division. They are not the same type of worker.’ In some cases that is true and in some cases it isn’t.”

Harrison argues H1-B visa rules make it difficult for foreign workers at U.S. companies to change jobs. They tend to be “systemically underpaid” compared with American workers, he said, and if they are laid off, they are supposed to leave the country without recourse.

H-1B Visas

Qualcomm H-1B Visa approvals

2014: 461*

2013: 909

2012: 666

2011: 312

2010: 287

2009: 293

  • 2014 data runs from Oct. 2013 to Dec. 2014

Source: Computerworld and Howard University Professor Ron Hira via data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“There are a lot of financial and business reasons why (companies) would want an H-1B worker over an American,” he said. “The policy question for American society is are workers being treated fairly? What IEEE USA insists is that American workers should not be discriminated against.”

Aberle said Qualcomm and other tech companies are dealing with the pool of workers that’s available. Though the company tries to move existing employees to different jobs within the company when possible, it still needs to hire the best talent for the position, he said.

Companies in need

In San Diego, technology experts say data science, software and networking, biomedical engineering, genomics, wearables and cybersecurity are industries hungry for top talent.

The local chapter of IEEE, local universities, UCSD Extension and other groups have support services or training programs in many of these fields.

“I think a lot of folks at Qualcomm, with a little bit of retraining or retooling, will be able to find their footing quite well in other parts of the innovation economy,” said Mark Cafferty, chief executive of San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

San Diego has more than 8,000 companies employing 120,000 workers in fields related to software, engineering, scientific research, electronics manufacturing and other technology occupations where laid-off Qualcomm workers might land, according to data complied by the EDC.

Local technology companies continue to say it’s a struggle to find the right kind of tech talent, said Cafferty. Qualcomm is working with the EDC to assist employees affected by upcoming layoffs. EDC will serve as a conduit to connect technology companies in San Diego with impacted Qualcomm employees, according to the company.

“I think a lot of (tech firms) look at Qualcomm and immediately say, the quality of somebody coming out of there is going to be quite high,” said Cafferty. “So if they can get their hands on some of those people and provide a little bit of training, they are probably a lot better off than bringing somebody in who has no experience.”

Uncertain local job market awaits Qualcomm workers