Managing a paradigm shift is much easier when the transition does not involve you.

As designers and manufacturers of advanced technology products, living day by day on the slippery slope that separates bleeding edge and commodity technology, one thing we have become pretty comfortable dealing with is paradigm shifts.

I say “pretty comfortable,” as, while we deal well with changing technology demands, process implementation, standards requirements and customer expectations, even the most-seasoned veteran still cringes at one type of paradigm change: hiring, training and working with the next generation of “young” employees.

Many of our colleagues have been in the PCB industry for decades. There is a unique draw that attracts people to, and keeps them involved in, designing or manufacturing electronics. Maybe it’s the state-of-the-art technologies or possibly the camaraderie that sets our industry apart, but whatever the reason, we have more than our share of “seasoned” professionals globally, and in critical positions. Equally, many if not most companies actively promote as one of their value propositions the extensive experience that their company’s staff offers. A seasoned staff not only makes for good marketing copy, it impresses the heck out of customers, which are equally proud of their experienced staff.

The flip side is that our employee ranks, collectively and within individual companies, are getting long in the tooth. And therein lies the need for us all to confront the
scariest of paradigm shifts: our children’s (or grandchildren’s) generation in our workforce!

Am I overdramatizing happenstance? Possibly. Consider, however, these two observations: First, most “kids” (read: adults under 30) rarely, if ever, use a telephone, preferring instead to “txt” their friends. Ergo, underdeveloped verbal communication skills. Second, too many “kids” (same definition) never held summer jobs and view “work” in general, especially manufacturing, through the lens of such TV programs as The Office – an undesirable activity involving self-involved morons.

Add to that the anecdotes from many I know in our industry, as well as other manufacturing industries, who have found far too often the next generation of employees chronically tardy or absent from work altogether, in possession of their smartphones even when in secure, hazardous or prohibited work areas, exhibiting a general lack of respect for age, rank or expertise. These attributes beget difficulty interacting with peers or contributing as a member of a department or team.

While these types of traits have been around for generations and often can be changed through patience and training, never has such a large number of potential employees shared both such little interest in working and such poor social and employee skills.

As our predecessors had to come to grips with similar and different foibles that the Baby Boom generation presented, we too must adapt to a new generation that does things differently and with different skill sets, social graces and tools. The challenge for our generation is significant, and could be fun, provided we choose to embrace the change. We need to remember what times were like when we were young, and understand that even while “new” employees must learn our proven ways, it is equally incumbent on us to learn new skills and embrace and utilize new tools – the same ones this next generation is comfortable with. Managing through a changing paradigm is much easier when the paradigm that must transition is not you.

As a parent of children in their 20s, and at ease on a social basis with their generation’s, er, novel approaches to life (and work), I still have a tough time dealing with those same novel approaches in the workplace. When young employees show up donning their earbuds, questioning the whats and whys of their assigned task, and, even scarier, once they finish asking those zillion questions, they make it clear they would like a different job, I find it hard not to ask myself what happened to the “yes, sir; whatever you want, sir” attitude?

The reality check is that back when our generation made up the “kids” entering the workforce we grumbled with the best of them. Ditto the Baby Boomers, who were much more independent-minded than the generation before them. What we lacked in tact we made up for in knowledge of then-current technologies, trends and social interaction methods. That’s where we long-in-the-tooth folk have to remember, and learn how, to take advantage of next-generation knowledge of technologies and devices, the ideas that are unfamiliar and therefore under – or not – utilized effectively by us.

Which brings me back to the scary aspect of this most difficult paradigm shift: It is we who have to embrace change, harness new ideas, and create an environment that puts to use the tools and technology the next generation is capable of helping us with.

Equally, to attract the next generation to consider our industry we need to embrace the challenge of selling our industry and our companies as a viable and good workplace – career choice – for young workers. We need to embrace different workplace rules that encourage younger people to join and contribute to our industry and companies. We need to utilize new tools to train and operate, rather than forcing antiquated methods down the throats of a technology savvy generation. We need to change our approach to work schedules and consider flex time and other lifestyle friendly operating schedules. The list is long, scary, and mostly in our court to embrace.

Hiring employees has always been a challenge, hiring young employees an even larger one. We as an industry have said and written much about the difficulty in attracting and retaining “good people.” The next generation for our industry is present; we just have to adapt to them.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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