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Recruiting and retaining talent is becoming a monumental task in our industry. Look around at trade shows; there is a palpable decrease in the number of young people who are interested in engineering and/or manufacturing. With the advent of the IT age, the prospective workforce has moved on to the next natural step in the technological progression. As of the 2011 Census report, only 32% of STEM workers had engineering occupations. One can only assume, with outsourcing and cheaper costs overseas, that figure has dropped precipitously over the last six years.
A lot of this has to do with the defocusing on vocational and trade courses in school. Students’ interests in engineering aren’t being cultivated sufficiently enough to survive past graduation. It’s not as though the interest isn’t there initially.
According to a 2014 CareerBuilder survey, the most popular career choice for high school students is engineering. However, other studies suggest that as much as 60% of students who begin high school interested in STEM subjects end up changing their minds by the time they graduate.
This, combined with the statistic from the 2011 Census report, leads to one conclusion: there is a glaring shortage of young American engineers. American high schools aren’t teaching students about circuits or manufacturing processes. It’s probably safe to say that a majority of these youngsters don’t realize how important these things are to their precious cellphones and tablets. In fact, in the same way that much of our work comes from Asia, so too does the workforce. A salary that would be scoffed at by an American graduate might be worth a small fortune to his international counterpart and their family.
Interest among America’s youth in engineering and manufacturing is waning. In order to sustain our industry for the foreseeable future—especially domestically—this interest needs to be reinvigorated. Once you get them in the door, how do you keep young talent in-house? Countless possibilities present themselves once he or she is a member of the workforce. Could they be poached by a competitor? Could they become disenchanted with the profession? Can you justify keeping them around? This is the harder challenge. When adolescents think about manufacturing, one thing stands out above all: manual labor. There is a certain stigma attached to it which newer generations find increasingly difficult to digest. It’s as if physical work is a status symbol—or lack thereof. There are two things that can alleviate this misconception: showing them that there’s nothing wrong with hard work and showing them that hard work doesn’t necessarily mean breaking your back.
As an employer, the need for innovative, young minds is evident everywhere you look. From process engineers to streamline your processes to motivated salespeople who can attract business to your company in a way you never might have thought possible, the ideas are there. They’re just not being given room to grow. To do this, we need to partake in and commit to grassroots outreach including school field trips, participating in college career fairs, and welcome newcomers into our industry.
For a sector that prides itself on being full of Joe Six-Packs, many of us have a very “you can’t sit with us” demeanor. We turn our noses up at an amateurish question or mentally disqualify somebody without taking the time to learn about them or what they know. New ideas from new employees are dismissed because of resistance to change on the part of leadership. How, then, should we be allowed to complain that we don’t have a sufficient influx of talent?
Another misconception that often goes unaddressed is the level of education required. Students and graduates often assume they need a master’s degree or higher to be gainfully employed in our industry. Fortunately, many of us would agree that the best way to learn is on the job. There’s no better teacher. Unfortunately, though, we don’t do a great job of conveying that to the workforce. This industry doesn’t align with current trends. To counter that, it’s necessary to change and adapt to the times. The reluctance to change, though, is obvious and detrimental. This is a direct byproduct of an aging workforce. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” never considered the fact that you still need to do some sort of upkeep on whatever “it” is.
Recruiting bright, young talent requires being able to speak their language. Bending employees to your will wasn’t always effective and now it’s become a hindrance to business. Whereas the business concept of “make a lot of money” is embedded in all people very early on in life from a purely survival standpoint, science happens in the background of our lives. It’s not always as tangible and therefore, takes us longer to grasp. If the economic health of a nation is partly predicated upon the goods it produces, it’s fair to say that complex manufacturing plays an important role. Therefore, not only does inspiring students to learn engineering and other sciences help our industry, it helps everyone. PCB
Sam Sangani is president and CEO of PNC Inc.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The PCB Magazine.