Peter Bigelow

America’s got talent. How do we get them to try manufacturing?

Over the past weeks, I have had several opportunities to run into “old” friends, meet “young” aspiring bright-eyed upstarts and discuss what, to many of us, has become one of the biggest concerns we have managing tech manufacturing businesses: finding good employees. These opportunities have at times seemed less like a journey in search of excellence and more like a scavenger hunt.

My experience began on a college campus. Popping in to visit my son relatively unannounced (I have learned to give him time to clean up the most damaging evidence of the most recent party), I was pleasantly surprised to tag along to his lab, where he works on a team project as part of the chemical engineering degree he is pursuing. His team consisted of a half-dozen juniors and seniors, all engineering majors, from all over the world. I was impressed how energetic they are; eager to help each other; the camaraderie and how they seemed to know each other’s strengths, leaning on each other for collective support and success.
To me, this next generation looked pretty impressive!

As most parents do, I just had to ask some questions. Mine were about what they wanted to do after they graduated. Only one mentioned going for an advanced degree in their field. Most talked about getting jobs. What kind of jobs? I asked. “Ones that pay a lot!” was the universal response. “What industries pay the best, and would you want to work in them?” I continued. The answers seemed to revolve around oil and gas and software, as they are high-paying. No one mentioned manufacturing, electronics, or any of the industries directly supported by ours. “What about technology like electronics?” I prompted. The response, in short: There is no pay in manufacturing; the career path is “draining,” and they don’t want to live overseas.  

Now, when engaging with up-and-comers, one thing you have to factor in is that they lack experience and often speak about things of which they have no knowledge. Only one of these students had ever been inside a manufacturing plant. I have also noticed that the younger the person, the more authoritatively they can wax on regarding subjects they do not understand. Acknowledging this, I pointed out they might be surprised at how interesting and lucrative manufacturing can be, and perhaps they should look further before deciding. That said, it did get me thinking about how we can attract the young bright minds with the latest skills when what they want most is a big paycheck and not a “draining” career.

The next stop on my journey was a memorial tribute to a recently lost industry icon. As I looked around at the packed house of attendees and listened to them recount “the good old days,” it struck me both how exciting our industry is – from its earliest days to the present – and how looking around I saw few people in their forties and none in their thirties! What a shame. A shame that we have fewer people entering our industry than we do people who are nearer to the end of their careers. And a shame that the young people we do have will not have the opportunity to know those older “who’s who” of the industry that has been the bedrock on which so many great things have been launched.

I’m not sure younger people have grasped that the current bevy of handheld computerized devices exists only because of the talented people in our industry who innovated and invented technologies, processes and materials to enable powerful miniaturization. It would be equally impossible for those many and diverse devices to communicate without the circuit boards and circuity that are found in the satellites and base stations that transmit those signals instantaneously and globally. To me, none of that is “draining,” and all of it demands talent, imagination and the fortitude to sweat the details until the imagined magic becomes pragmatic reality. I wish those students could spend some time with the exciting minds of our industry legends and see the true side of technology manufacturing.

Which leads me to having lunch with an old friend who has been mostly in – and occasionally out – of the industry for decades. We talked about how our industry has a certain draw that keeps talent interested and engaged, despite the inevitable ups and downs – and how it draws people back in, even when they think they are done. We talked at length about how few industries have such a special draw and yet how ours has such a challenge attracting young people. “You may not make a million bucks, but you sure will be working on some exciting stuff,” my friend said. I agree. Regrettably, for too many of the young bucks, the excitement comes from making big bucks, not realizing visions.

 At journey’s end, I find myself at my desk in a discussion with key staff about our need to find some talented staff. “Where do you find anyone who wants to work in manufacturing?” one asks. Well, maybe that’s the problem; maybe we need to rebrand what we do to attract the next generation of talent who will lead our companies and industry into the future. Instead of looking for “workers” or “employees,” we should be finding “exciting minds” and talking about the “creative career” one can find in the PCB industry.

The “young” look at things differently than we “old” folks do. They have youth. We have experience. We need to find a way to attract that youth before it’s too late for them to take advantage of our individual and collective experience.  The journey to attract the next generation will not be short, and for all of us the clock is already ticking.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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