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Mike BuetowWhat’s in a name?

We probably ask that question about 10,000 times over the course of our lives. It often starts with our own. How many times did you complain – loudly or under your breath – about your own name? “Mine’s too common/uncommon/plain/weird,” etc. A name is just a name, but for many juveniles, it’s their introduction to branding.

I attended a parochial school for eight years. At one time, no fewer than five of the 20 or so boys in my class were named Michael. And “it wasn’t me, it was the other Mike” could only fool the nuns for so long. At one point, probably around third grade, in the faintest of hopes to distinguish myself, I remember telling classmates and teachers to call me by my middle name: John.

That didn’t take either. And so went my early attempts to raise my “personal brand.”

As it has turned out, self-branding is a big part of today’s worker’s career. We don’t stay in the same place for 40 or 50 years anymore. Roles change, and skills and knowledge must change along with them. And as they do, rest assured programs will rise up to add credibility and esteem to the new responsibilities.

When we launched the designer certification program back in 1994, our goal was less about teaching circuit board design skills to the masses, although that was part of it. The central mission, however, was to raise the understanding and perception of the designer’s role within their respective companies and the industry at large. At the time, a good percentage of designers – no one really knows the exact number – came from trade schools or possessed non-engineering degrees. Electrical engineers made up a small fraction of the labor pool.

Today, the pendulum has swung. The current crop of layout and placement professionals is not completely composed of engineering stock, but there’s clearly momentum in that direction. We are seeing this at workshops, conferences, and in our salary surveys (the latest of which is now available at PCDandF.com).

As the academic background evolves, a quiet rebranding is taking place as well. I’m not sure it’s because the term “designer” is seen in some quarters as a pejorative so much as those with engineering degrees naturally see themselves as engineers who also happen to perform board layout as a job function; albeit it does not make up the entirety of their responsibilities.

A similar effect is uprooting the assembly industry, in which even veteran observers are openly questioning whether manufacturing itself needs to be renamed or rebranded.

This latest sign of the times was underscored in a session last month at PCB West. Ostensibly titled “The Future of PCB Engineers,” the hour-long open session in fact was a broad busting of myths. Moderated by the eminent Phil Marcoux, a slew of leaders from vocational schools, junior colleges and universities in the San Jose area revealed the depth to which programs have been developed to countermand the so-called “graying” of the industry.

As it turns out, beyond the hype, an entire infrastructure is growing to support next-generation engineers. Anecdotally, the successes are many and impressive. In one instance, a teenager developed a sensor-based monitor for detecting oncoming asthma attacks. And a survey of audience members showed more than half offer intern programs to high schoolers.

One big obstacle the panel identified, however, was whether manufacturing is, well, sexy enough to attract millennials. Does the name itself have a bad rap, the panel wondered? No consensus was reached.

The session ended with more questions than answers: Do we as an industry sell risk-taking? Is it even sellable? Do we talk about problems, or opportunities, or both? Which is the bigger selling point? Are there regional differences or outlooks on manufacturing? (For instance, in the Northeast US, employers need to compete with the scorching biotech industry. In California, there’s Facebook and Google and Apple to contend with.) And when is the optimum time to get the next generation indoctrinated?

Yet, it shows bright minds are wrestling with the dilemma, and not willing to leave the outcome to chance. Now that manufacturing is at long last politically in vogue, that’s the best possible approach to ensure it has a chance to take root among all the Michaels and Johns – and Michaelas and Janes – who see their careers as intertwined with their personal brands.

P.S. See us this month at SMTAI, booth 847.

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