No matter where you turn in the assembly and test world, the average employee age is creeping up. How can we attract new talent to our industry?

No offense, but you’re getting up there in age! Of course, you’re not alone in that particular affliction. No matter where you turn in the assembly and test world, the average employee age is creeping up.

Several factors are contributing to this trend. First, we are in manufacturing. On a good day, that evokes mild pity. On a bad day, it gets you the same look that people give when they find a fly in their soup. Decades of outsourcing, plant closings and asking people to do more for less has gutted our ability to attract qualified people to the industry.

Second, there aren’t all that many engineers to choose from anymore. We’ve all seen the stats: Engineering output from our universities has dropped precipitously over the last 20 years. If you remove foreign national graduates who are planning to return to their home countries from the numbers, it’s considerably worse.

Third, the assembly and test world is an invisible industry. I almost dread the requisite question at a cocktail party: “So, what do you do for a living?” Rather than just being able to say “doctor” or “accountant”-career labels that immediately paint the picture of what my daily life is about-I have to go through a 10-minute explanation using examples, complicated hand gestures and, occasionally, sketches and visual aids. After all that, I typically get a glazed look, a halfhearted “I see,” and the subject quietly changes to the latest sports score. Nobody really knows what we’re all about. Most college professors who visit us don’t even know what we do. It’s a tough to attract people when they don’t know you are there.

Finally, our field is a strange niche for engineers, which makes it hard for people to judge how well they would like to pursue it. Face it, we are not a calculation-intensive business, so the thing that attracts people to engineering in the first place isn’t a big part of our day-to-day work. Yes, you need good engineering skills, and the work is by no means simple, but it isn’t exactly bleeding edge from a hard-science perspective. It tends to be very experiential. In fact, in the old days, more of the engineering staff came off the floor than came out of the university.
Now, we’re stuck between two worlds. Experience is still critical for success, but technology has evolved to the point where a degreed engineer is a more likely hiring choice. This makes it more difficult for assemblers and toolmakers to make the jump into engineering. By the same token, few degreed engineers want to hear that it will be five to 10 years before they’ll have enough experience to get the good titles, earn bigger money, and make a real difference in the organization.

The shame is that this is still a great job. Despite the negatives, the assembly and test industry is one of the most rewarding, challenging, interesting and broadest experiences an engineer could have. Think about it. When is the last time anyone in our industry voluntarily jumped ship and went to a different industry? Once it gets in your blood, you can barely conceive that there’s another way to make a living. We should have people lined up to do this. Instead, we are seriously at risk of going extinct in another 30 years from simple lack of interest!

So what can we do? I wish I had an answer, but I don’t have the magic bullet. There are steps we can take, but none are overnight solutions. First, we need PR, and lots of it. Some industry organizations already do this. The Association of Manufacturing Technology and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers are focusing on colleges and high schools to attract more people into the general engineering fields. But true PR for our industry will only come from our industry. Each of us needs to go to colleges and, perhaps more importantly, high schools, and give presentations on what we do. I don’t mean the obligatory yearly visit to the local college on career day, but active participation. Students need to see the passion that we feel about our industry. They need to know our companies exist, and they need to see the equipment we build.

Next, we need to draw new graduates in. That probably means money and titles that are beyond their experience and capability. This will be a tough pill for us to swallow. Just about everyone in a senior management position went through the ranks and did menial work for little money. We earned our titles and gained our experience with a lot of hours and effort. But, we need to recognize that the world operates differently than it did, and today’s grads expect more instant gratification. If we don’t, we can stand on principle and fail in execution.

Once we attract recent grads, we must have an intensive training program in place. That 10 years it used to take to get people up the learning curve must be cut to three, or the investment in an “underperformer” will be unsustainable. This is tough culturally. We’re used to people picking up the tricks of the trade on their own. Since ours is an experiential business, there is a high risk that the old salts won’t want to give away their trade secrets freely to a newbie.

This issue requires serious attention and deliberation. Twenty years from now, some 80 percent or more of us will be retired. The average age in our industry is around 47. When you think of the time it will take to shift strategies, 20 years seems like tomorrow!

A 20-year veteran of the assembly automation industry, Bill Budde is regional director for corporate business development at Assembly & Test Worldwide Inc. in Dayton, OH. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University and a master’s degree in international business and finance from Wright State University.

Editor’s note: “Budde on Assembly Automation” is one of a new series of guest spots by industry experts that will appear regularly on ASSEMBLY’s blog page. Check back frequently to read more commentaries from Bill, as well as contributions on vision systems, leak testing, robotics and ergonomics.