The Talent Conundrum Print E-mail
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Written by Peter Bigelow   
Thursday, 02 August 2012 19:01

I can’t find good staff, but what, me worry?

How does that old joke go? You get a telegraph/phone call/fax/text (yes, over generations “instant” message technology has changed) from an old friend that says, “Start worrying; details to follow ….” We as an economy, industry and individuals are getting that message to “start worrying,” except with all the global rhetoric, what are the all-important “details to follow?”

“Start worrying” is not limited to our industry. We regularly hear of the rise, fall and rebirth of various regions, technologies, markets and individuals. Ditto for the economy in general. In each case, the focus is on issues, decisions, products and positioning – all important, but only a small subset of what we need to worry about: the lack of qualified people entering our industry, or for that matter, product design, manufacturing and technology in general.

My corporate neighbor is a sizable printing business. Down the street is a cable manufacturer. Their biggest concern is not the economy or even health care. Rather, it is finding “talent.” When I meet with customers, it does not take long for the conversation to focus on the lack of qualified talent. Attend any industry meeting and inevitably colleagues will cite the difficulty in finding and retaining good technical employees.

It’s not just our industry that feels the pinch from the absence of a reservoir of young, energetic people with a passion for technology, manufacturing and inventing the next great innovation. But when speaking with my grown children and their friends, regardless of education, manufacturing and product development are not what they aspire toward. More frustrating are young people with engineering or technical degrees who are more interested in finance and marketing than touching products or developing processes that will revolutionize products and the manufacturing systems that produce them.

This is not just a Western issue. Even my Chinese friends, awash in staggering numbers of bright, motivated workers, comment that too many are less interested in technology than they are in the paycheck.

So folks, start worrying! And while you’re at it, start thinking! The only way to ensure long-term viability is to rethink how to attract, develop and retain qualified talent, regardless of geographical location. For as long as I can remember, the topic of “how to find talent” has been a regular one at conferences, and the response is always that the problem is one of short-term “supply/demand” that over time will take care of itself. I’m not getting any younger, yet the problem is getting much larger.

What can one do to begin to reverse the tide? First, openly discuss the problem. I don’t just mean at industry gatherings. Few teachers at any level have a clue there is a shortage of qualified employees. More important, those same teachers have no clue what curriculum would best prepare the next generation for such jobs. Even in the “voc-tech” world, there are too many “theorists”: well-meaning faculty who have been out of manufacturing and technology for decades. That has to change, and communication between the real world of technology/manufacturing companies and academia is often best when done on a one-on-one level. Simple steps, like showing up at a local technical school to make a presentation on career day, can make a difference. Working through trade organizations, local business organizations and chambers of commerce to explain the types of career paths that technology manufacturing companies can offer can add much-needed visibility.

College is another real opportunity, one that some of the industry associations or well-conceived industry consortia must begin embracing. I know firsthand of engineering departments at major state universities that have sought out – and been turned down – by large printed circuit board-related companies when asked about intern opportunities – or just to host students for facility tours. We must become far more aggressive at courting universities so young talent can learn about our industry. We must demand that our various industry associations address this need, and help those organizations’ efforts through our active involvement. We also need to aggressively work together through various consortia so that, on a local level, our companies are heard and the need understood. I know firsthand that these educational collaboratives do attract both talent and awareness.

The proverbial 800 lb. gorilla that must also be addressed is our industry must offer a competitive option to other available careers. This means understanding that the days of a $10 an hour CAM operator are over, and treating employees like indentured servants can no longer be the norm. As an industry, we must begin thinking in terms of career options rather than short-term, kneejerk hiring to fill an immediate gap.

Younger employees have a very different view of “career” vs. “job.” Greater flexibility in hours, greater educational and training opportunities and upward advancement measured in years vs. decades will be expected. When considering work options, the bright and talented will emphasize very different paths than just the “other circuit board company” down the proverbial street. As companies and an industry, we compete with all industries, globally, for the talent pool.

As much as this topic has been previously debated, where we are today is a sad homage to how seriously we have not taken it. In North America too many companies hire “platers” whose only knowledge of chemistry was mixing fertilizer at a landscaping company. In Asia, despite all the greenfield companies with tons of state-of-the-art equipment, the “shut up and work” mentality will not survive an environment where career options are abundant. Unless some actions are taken now, what few companies still exist will dwindle further.

Start worrying! And while you’re at it, get in gear. If we all need a pool of qualified people to enable future growth, now is the time for action.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His column appears monthly.

Last Updated on Friday, 03 August 2012 12:53


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