circuit board for emedded technology

The initial impact of the pandemic on the embedded software market is starting to ease and in the long term the skills shortage is likely to deepen.

Finding skilled embedded software developers has long been a challenge. As far back as 2008 Microsoft teamed up with five UK universities to try and raise awareness of embedded software development as a career path among students because there was a talent pipeline problem.

One of the factors contributing to the long-term shortage is the pay gap between software development for services and for products. “Where IT developers are getting paid a high day rate, embedded developers, who are equally as skilled, if not more skilled, get paid a lot less because the work is product based. When you get into a product market it’s all about who can do it cheaper, whereas IT is more about service,” says Daniel Twomey, Sales Team Manager – Engineering Contract Division, Computer Futures and Huxley Engineering.

This is resulting in an ageing workforce as graduates seek higher paid jobs. “There’s going to be a scarcity of these skills in the future as graduates choose different career paths,” says Stuart Stanton, Associate Business Manager – IT and Engineering at Computer Futures.

However, when the pandemic hit, it took its toll on the embedded market as new projects stalled and factories struggled to implement Industry 4.0 plans. Momentum is starting to build again with some sub-sectors already experiencing talent shortages.

“Three or four months ago there were lots of people available, now it’s getting a lot tighter again. There suddenly seems to be a boom for talent,” says Twomey.

Healthcare goes digital

Embedded software developers with experience working on products for the health sector are in particularly high demand due to the role embedded systems have played during the pandemic.

Remote health monitoring devices, which are worn by patients and transmit vital data such as heart rate to healthcare professionals, were available before the pandemic. But adoption of these devices has been accelerated as a result of the recent pressures faced by health services.

Indeed, the NHS deployed remote devices to monitor both COVID-19 patients and those with chronic conditions in their homes in 2020. This helped free up hospital beds while at the same time allowing patients to be checked for signs of deterioration. It also allowed nurses to keep an eye on vulnerable patients without risky face-to-face contact.

The trial of remote monitoring systems through necessity during the pandemic has demonstrated what can be achieved. “It’s shown that the technology will make everything a lot more efficient and that it will save lives, so I think there will be a lot more technology being implemented within the NHS,” says Twomey.

The remote patient monitoring market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12.2% to 2025, according to Brandessence.

Other medical devices with embedded technology have also been in high demand globally during the pandemic, such as rapid diagnostics systems. Alongside existing technologies, innovative solutions have harnessed embedded in the fight against COVID-19, such as a promising ceiling-mounted ‘COVID alarm’ developed by British scientists that it is thought can rapidly detect infected people in a closed room.

Developing medical devices that have a life-critical function demands a specialist skillset, with embedded software professionals required to work to industry standards, which must be considered right from the outset of the development process. “If you’re working on anything medical you’ve got to adhere to the particular standards in that industry. There’s been a big spike in demand for people who have got experience in the medical industry,” says Ryan Collett, Business Manager – Engineering and Life Sciences at Real Staffing.

However, with medical device software development specialists in short supply at the moment, manufacturers can draw on a closely related talent pool. “If there aren’t people with that experience then people who’ve worked in other standards-based industries, such as aerospace or defence, have transferrable skills,” adds Collett.

Green shoots in wider market

The shutdown of factories at the start of the pandemic had a big impact on the supply of semi-conductors, an essential component of devices containing embedded systems. When they got back up and running there was a backlog of orders to process, which had an impact on device manufacturers, but that picture is slowly starting to change. “We’re seeing a lot of projects that maybe couldn’t go ahead or haven’t been able to go ahead starting to kick off and getting quite busy last couple of months,” says Twomey. “Aerospace has suddenly picked back up even though planes aren’t flying.”

In the longer term, embedded systems will play an integral part of life in the coming decades. While the pandemic has disrupted the rollout of Internet of Things (IOT) technology, it has also shown it to be essential to industrial resilience. Meanwhile, ‘smart’ technologies in cars, buildings and more will be essential tools on the pathway to net zero carbon emissions as the world tries to limit global temperature rises.

“The increase in actual embedded electronic-based devices is going to be massive over the next 10 years or so as everything gets more connected,” says Twomey. “Smart cities, smart motorways, electric vehicles, all that stuff has embedded software to start with, increasing the demand for embedded software developers.”

“There’s going to be a disparity at some point where there are not going to be enough people to fill that demand.”

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