Chips are down for high-tech workers - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Chips are down for high-tech workers

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Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2006 7:37 am | Updated: 4:35 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

I am told that one of the advantages of AMD chips is they give off less heat. That is unless you work for Intel. AMD has made enough of a dent in Intel’s market share in computer chips that it has affected Intel’s bottom line.

Intel’s response came a couple weeks ago when it announced plans to cut its worldwide work force by about 10 percent.

There may be more bad news on the local high-tech job front. Freescale, the semiconductor division Motorola spun off, has agreed to be bought by a group of equity firms.

This creates an uncertain situation for employees. Will there be layoffs? Will units sold off?

Here is where the modern world — a world made modern by companies such as Intel and Motorola — gets sticky for those who depend on Intel and Motorola or Motorola’s successor companies for their livelihood.

High tech by its nature is economically disruptive. It alters processes. Knocks down barriers to market. Accelerates the pace of change.

And it can even affect agents of change in unforeseen ways.

Take Motorola. Historically, Motorola was an electronics company that made all sorts of gadgets, starting with car radios, and moving on to walkie-talkies, TVs and eventually pagers and cell phones.

The first modern cell phone was developed by a Motorola scientist in the 1970s. When the Federal Communications Commission opened up more frequencies in the early 1990s, Motorola was at the forefront as cell phones — previously reserved for corporate bigwigs, drug dealers and doctors — became common.

Then Motorola made a couple mistakes. Someone at headquarters decided digital transmission was a passing fad. And that making sure handsets were stylish didn’t matter.

Wrong answers. It took years for Motorola to recover.

In the mid-1990s, the company employed nearly 20,000 people in the Valley, but the company sold its analog semiconductor business in Phoenix to ON Semiconductor and its government electronic business in Scottsdale to General Dynamics and closed a semiconductor factory in Mesa.

Under pressure from Wall Street, Motorola spun off the semiconductor business into Freescale. Today Freescale employs about 3,000. Motorola employs about 1,500.

GM and Ford took decades to bungle away significant market share. In high tech, the process is much faster. It doesn’t take major mistakes.

Once, not so long ago, a job at Intel or Motorola seemed so secure, something you could count on.

Of course lifetime job security once looked more stultifying than it does now. Remember the term “rat race”? No one uses it anymore.

I recall an encounter with a young engineer the summer before I started college. We were waiting to get onto the racquetball courts at Arizona State University.

He asked what I was going to study in school and I said journalism. “I wish I had done something like that,’’ he said. “I just got a job at Motorola. I’ve been there six weeks and I hate it already.”

He went on about how much he dreaded spending the next “40 years of my life at that place.”

In all likelihood, he didn’t.

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