Susan Mucha

When developing recruiting programs, don’t overlook employee integration.

We are starting to see the true legacy of the shift to a service economy in the new millennium. Entry-level (and even experienced professionals) have never seen the inside of a factory. A few years ago, I wrote an article focusing on the changing of the guard. My thesis was many experienced professionals were retiring from sourcing or management, and their replacements had far less experience. At the time, I focused on the challenge it posed to electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies selling to teams that had little experience buying manufacturing services.

For the US, this is obviously a problem if we want to reboot our manufacturing economy and reshore business, creating new manufacturing jobs. But it is also becoming an issue in simply maintaining the status quo. It creates two challenges. First, simply finding workers can be difficult. Second, integrating them with experienced teams can be equally challenging. In the early days of EMS, no one had experience either, of course. The first company I worked for was building 80% of the world’s PC supply with retrained chicken pluckers at one point in the 1980s, and the amount of skill and technical knowledge required per worker was actually higher than today, given the automation associated with factory operations. The company worked with the state to get a training grant and set up trailers in parking lots and trained hand-solderers by the thousands, keeping the best for their operations and sharing the rest with other companies. That model could ultimately work today.

The companies I see having the least issues recruiting personnel typically find a way to be champions for manufacturing in their region. Instead of reactively looking for talent as needed, they stay involved with local university engineering programs and community colleges. They participate in career fairs and career days. They may also offer internships to college students in critical skill areas. In short, they focus on building mindshare with people who may be looking for a job.

Team integration is often the bigger challenge. One advantage of engineering internships is they create an on-the-job (OJT) training experience that can pay big dividends if the person is later hired full-time. However, many companies must replace experienced team members in program management, purchasing or production with others with no manufacturing or engineering experience. To be successful, it is important to consider two things. First, the new employee has just been dropped into an environment where a foreign language is spoken. I remember my first few weeks in an electronics factory back in 1981. Back then Electronic News was an inch-and-a-half thick, and to me it was like reading Greek. I don’t think I was able to read and comprehend a single article the first time I picked it up. We were building the first IBM PCs, so electronics was a brave new world to most folks without an engineering degree. But I made it my mission in life to learn the language. Today, I can pick up any technical publication and understand what I’m reading. Inexperienced hires have the same challenge. Requests such as cost an ECO, expedite some DRAMs, check on the kit status of popcorn parts, figure out what the customer meant on the AVL or enter the BoM are unintelligible to someone without electronics manufacturing experience. Second, even if an individual learns the lingo, they may still be confused about processes, or which team members they support. What is the best way to address the challenge of onboarding support employees who are being introduced to their first factory job? Here are a few good ways to start:

Document procedures, processes and job descriptions. When ISO 9000 (and back then it was ISO 9000) was introduced, it was often described as a standard framework designed to help companies document core processes for ensuring product quality to a level where if everyone left the factory one night and an entirely new team took their place the following morning, they could do their jobs just based on the detail provided in the documentation. Attrition and the changing of the guard are rapidly putting many companies in the position to test that theory. But conceptually it makes a good point. Detailed procedures and work instructions can be invaluable to helping new employees do their jobs. The easier a company makes it for new employees to visualize the processes they are associated with, the procedures they must adhere to, the tools they use, the team members they work with and the results they are supposed to achieve, the faster they will become productive. Many companies have online job descriptions that include this level of detail.

Help the team member build relationships. While a fellow production operator mentor may be the best option for new production workers, support personnel who must work with a larger number of stakeholders may need a broader introduction to the teams they work with. In my last corporate job in Mexico, my first two weeks of work I was assigned to rotate through a series of lunches with the rest of the senior staff. In that position, I was vice president of sales & marketing. For me, it was a unique onboarding process. Through those lunches I met with and discussed issues one-on-one with every member of the team. It built strong relationships and gave me a very fast start to understanding how things were done in that company. While positions lower in the company don’t require that level of lunch-and-learn relationship building, a few lunches with key people whom a new program manager or salesperson will be working with are a good introduction to the company.

Add some hands-on experience. Some companies assign every new support person to the production floor for one or two weeks, rotating them through operations they can perform without being a certified operator. It is a good learning experience for those unfamiliar with manufacturing. The downside is that in a small organization, this may not be feasible from a cost standpoint.

Have a good training matrix. A good training matrix works hand-in-hand with detailed job descriptions because it clearly outlines what skills each worker needs to have. While most companies do this for production, it isn’t always done for support positions. Developing training matrixes for program management, purchasing and sales may be valuable if there are shortages of candidates with manufacturing-related experience in the area. Interview new employees after a few weeks on the job to better understand the knowledge “gaps” they feel they have. Add supplemental training as gaps are identified.

Tap industry resources. IPC offers a range of videos, training courses and certification programs and is expanding its education delivery capabilities via its Edge training platform. Its video training courses include some basic introductions to electronics manufacturing. These may be valuable for those new to manufacturing to better understand their roles.

While the US EMS industry has enjoyed some boom cycles with large pools of experienced employees, it has also done well when supporting growth that required training large numbers of inexperienced employees. The trick to maintaining adequate staff with an inexperienced labor pool is to be proactive when defining likely sources of good employees, developing a training plan that eliminates knowledge gaps, documenting processes and job descriptions well enough that employees have the reference information they need, and building strong relationships early with newly hired employees. Creating an environment where employees know where to go when they need information to perform their jobs will shorten learning curves immensely and contribute to higher employee retention levels.

Susan Mucha is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (powell-muchaconsulting.com), a consulting firm providing strategic planning, training and market positioning support to EMS companies, and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services; smucha@powell-muchaconsulting.com.

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