Originally published in i-Connect007’s SMT Magazine May Issue here.
With more than 3,000,000 baby boomers retiring, or getting ready to do so, the manufacturing industry is bleeding out—losing talented, skilled, and experienced workers. Without a transfusion of new, even semi-skilled talent, many manufacturing companies are at a loss on how to best recruit the future workforce.
Saline Lectronics, an electronics manufacturing services provider in southeastern Michigan, like many other manufacturers in the U.S., has struggled with finding the right skilled production workers to fill open positions. I checked in with several Saline Lectronics employees to find out their take on the state of the situation and included their impressions in this article.
The Current Situation
According to a study published by Deloitte, and the Manufacturing Institute on the manufacturing skills gap, “Six out of 10 manufacturing positions remain unfilled due to the talent shortage.” In other words, the current pool of workers lacks the necessary skills and industry experience to fill the open demand.
For years, the younger generations have been discouraged by manufacturing careers. Negative connotations about manufacturing jobs as dirty, repetitive, and boring have plagued the industry for the last 20 years. Manufacturing lacks the sex appeal that jobs in tech use to entice potential employees. Ironically, many of the tech companies create products that require some type of manufacturing, either domestically or abroad.
In the same manufacturing skills gap study, only 37% of respondents said that they would actively encourage their children to pursue a career in manufacturing. However, parents who actually work in the manufacturing industry are twice more likely to encourage their children to look into these careers. The people with first-hand experience and an accurate perception of American manufacturing today understand the exponential potential to a varied career in the industry.
Due to this great shortage of skilled workers and the lackluster image of the industry, manufacturing companies have had to re-evaluate and redesign their HR strategies to recruit, hire and train new employees.
In previous years, Lectronics leveraged a strong relationship with the local ITT Technical Institute to identify and recruit candidates with technical schooling and skills. Unfortunately, due to government funding shortages, since 2016 ITT Tech has closed over five campuses in Michigan.
“It’s been extremely difficult to find trained technicians for test or hand solder,” commented Amie Duffy, HR specialist. “Since ITT Tech closed, it’s really impacted our funnel of skilled candidates.”
While working to establish new relationships with local community colleges, Lectronics’ HR strategy for 2017 blends a “grow your own” approach with heavy investment in new hire training and development. Additionally, the HR team actively reaches out to current employees to see if their communities, or alumni associations, might reveal hidden pools of untapped talent.
For manufacturing roles, community colleges tend to be a better resource than four-year universities for qualified applicants.
“Our industry is fast-paced and constantly advancing technology. If you’re out of it for two or three years than you’re missing a whole lot. People coming out of community college are far more connected to what we need,” said Jeff Riedel, Lean Champion.
According to Lectronics’ HR Manager, Shelly Phelps, the company has a successful program that allows the organization to hire and train employees without previous manufacturing work or skills. If candidates have the basic education requirement of an Associate’s degree, then the organization will train them for specific openings.
For skilled production work, like hand soldering, Lectronics relies on a newly developed training program for candidates without any experience. During the interview process, applicants are required to provide a skills sample, to see how they perform with a soldering iron or other technical piece of equipment. It’s essentially a test to see if they’re a good fit for the full onboarding and training program.
“We’ve started looking for candidates with transferrable skills. Even if they don’t have direct experience in manufacturing, someone who likes to work with their hands could be a good fit for a mechanical assembly position,” said Duffy.
During the interview process, Lectronics’ HR team isn’t solely focused on the applicant’s skills and experience. Personality and professional demeanor play a major role as the organization favors team-oriented and workable characteristics. HR typically recommends hiring people who are warm and friendly, and positively impact the company’s culture and work morale.
Surprisingly, Lectronics hasn’t had as much difficulty filling openings on the front side of manufacturing—such as customer service, purchasing, accounting or quoting roles. It’s the positions that require a more technical skill set that remain open and unfulfilled longer. In fact, most of technical production positions get filled by internal promotions rather than new hires.
“We grow our own. It’s our goal to identify what an employee wants in their personal career development; then, we give them an opportunity to pursue that avenue while providing the support and training to ensure that they stay,” said Phelps.
Lectronics always posts open positions internally first, so naturally, many openings are filled from within. While internal promotions have a dramatic, positive impact on the work culture, the internal shuffle can sometimes be difficult to manage. Phelps likens it to a double-edged sword, in filling one position with an internal candidate, another one has unexpectedly opened up from that employee’s departure. Managing that transition, and ensuring that it goes smoothly, requires a lot of HR’s time and support.
Lectronics’ “grow your own” strategy has been incredibly successful over the last couple of years. In fact, a few employees that started at Lectronics in temporary positions have made successful transitions to managerial roles and plan to further develop careers within manufacturing.
Here are their stories:
A Geographer in Electronics Manufacturing
With a B.S. degree in Cultural Geography, Luke Timassey never anticipated he would develop his early career at an electronics manufacturing company, but that’s exactly where he’s currently flourishing.
When he finished school and moved back to Michigan, Timassey was introduced to Lectronics through friends who worked at the organization. They spoke very highly of their work experience, and in August 2014, he applied through a temp agency to an open SMT technician position on the night shift.
“I thought the SMT tech position would be a good starting point,” explained Timassey. “I figured I would slowly work my way up—little by little.”
After spending a few months as an SMT Technician, Timassey quickly transitioned to the day shift, and was promoted to training specialist for the SMT Department. His expedient growth trajectory felt a bit overwhelming at times, but he expressed incredible support and encouragement from his managers.
After about six months, Timassey was looking for more of a daily challenge and applied for an internal posting that piqued his interest, documentation specialist. He interviewed and was immediately awarded the job. To help ease the transition, Timassey stayed in SMT to appropriately train his replacement before moving over to the new documentation group.
Now, as documentation specialist, Timassey is responsible for creating and processing necessary production documents such as work instructions and assembly drawings. He feels that he still has a lot to learn within the documen- tation group and is eager to expand his responsibilities.
“I plan to continue to work on my resume and grow within Saline Lectronics,” said Timassey.
Testing a Temporary Plan
Originally referred through a temp agency, Alex Johnson started at Lectronics as an AOI Operator. He had no plans to stay on long-term and simply needed a job.
With a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, Johnson’s analytical mind and clear problem-solving work approach enabled him to quickly climb the ranks. Within one month, Johnson was promoted to AOI programmer. Shortly thereafter, an associate engineering position opened up, and his manager at the time, Jason Sciberras, recommended Johnson for the position.
“Jason wanted me to grow internally,” commented Johnson. “It made me feel con dent in myself and my abilities. It was exactly what I needed to keep me at Lectronics.”
Even without prior industry experience Johnson flourished within the engineering group. He believes his production perspective from actually working on the floor allowed him to better understand the appropriate type of support manufacturing needs from engineering.
Johnson’s excellent work in engineering was noticed and appreciated by upper management, and he was internally recruited for the process engineering position that he’s currently doing.
“Process engineering lets me do more of what I enjoy,” said Johnson. “I take a close look at a specific processes and make tooling to help that process flow better. Streamlining the process in conformal coating is quite satisfying.”
While a far cry from chemistry reagents and lab work, Johnson enjoys exploring the electronics assembly field and finds the work intellectually satisfying. He even likens it to the scientific process—collecting samples and data and making decisions based on that empirical information.
The Importance of Asking Questions
Neena Vemuri takes great pride in her engineering mindset. With an education background in interdisciplinary engineering and CAD drafting, she’s always been drawn to work that requires thorough examination and questioning.
After struggling to find the right job fit for a few months, she got involved with a Michigan employment agency to find work. When she initially interviewed at Lectronics in December 2014 for a stockroom specialist position, the hiring manager was so impressed by her that he recommended her for an entirely different position, documentation assistant, where he thought her skills would be better served.
She used the documentation role as an opportunity to get her foot in the door, and to absorb everything she possibly could about printed circuit board assembly. Within six months, Vemuri applied for an internal process engineering role as that work appealed to her longer term career goals.
In process engineering, Vemuri managed the processes for hand solder, repair, stockroom and quality. Within this role, she also successfully completed training to be an IPC 610 certified trainer, where she had the added responsibility to train new employees.
“I like training. I get to meet new people and understand them better,” said Vemuri.
Vemuri recently transitioned to quality manager in February 2017; in fact, she put her-self forward for a position that wasn’t even posted. In hopes of moving into the quality department, she sent a passionate email to HR and the VP of Quality about why she wanted to be in that group—specifically, where she would like to make improvements, and why she would be so successful in that group.
“I’m always full of ideas,” commented Vemuri. “People at Lectronics have been great about noticing and appreciating good ideas. These promotions from within are great for morale; instead of hiring someone from the outside with a specific piece of paper, it’s better that we give an internal employee a chance—someone with a background at the organization.”
Vemuri admits that she never envisioned being a manager so quickly at Lectronics. The pride in her voice is apparent when she talks about her goals for the group she now manages. She’s extremely grateful for the internal support system, speci cally from the HR team and her direct manager, Scott Sober.
“Scott likes to give high fives,” explained Vemuri. “He’s great about giving constant feedback. He’ll tell me that I am doing well at the things that I know, and for the things that I don’t know, he’s willing to offer guidance and support to help me learn. I don’t have to pretend that I know something that I don’t.”
While the investment is higher, and the risk can be greater, hiring and onboarding green employees typically pays off; these workers tend to be more committed to the organization overall. As seen in the three narratives above, these employees are grateful for the chances they’ve been afforded, the training that the organization has invested in them, and the support and encouragement they receive from Lectronics’ leadership team. It’s apparent that each of them are eager to keep expanding their careers in manufacturing.
For other manufacturers that may be feeling discouraged by the talent gap, consider re-evaluating recruiting, hiring and onboarding strategies for new employees. Until improvements can be made within high schools, community colleges and four-year universities to offer technical training, initiate a new HR strategy for potential employees without previous work experience or manufacturing skills. Instead of evaluating a candidate’s skills on paper, look for positive characteristics that fit well within the specific organization. Develop a training program that grooms the next generation of skilled manufacturing workers—specifically for your manufacturing floor.