Sometimes I imagine I could have learned about PCBs by tinkering with a double-sided board in my garage. Although it may seem silly, I’m intrigued by wave-soldering machines and through-hole components. Within each of these elements lies innovation and pioneering—a blast to a not so long ago past. Electronics have evolved over the past 50 years more than any other industry ever has. Whereas my parents’ generation grew up with simply-designed video games, my generation grew up with apps that teach toddlers how to code. If hardware was the past, software is the future. It’s trendy, complex, and neatly packaged in a work-from-home environment.
Computer science has become the new “cool.” Today’s students were groomed to want jobs in tech at big companies with happy hours, big paychecks, and high status. They were taught that they could design anything their heart desired from behind a computer screen without a second thought for the person who had to manufacture it. Let’s face it, manufacturing just isn’t sexy. It’s dirty, manual, and—for electronics—has a history of low margins. The pipeline into the field is broken. What was once a self-sufficient stream has dropped to a pitiful trickle.
The first step in re-building the pipeline into electronics is awareness. Prior to my first internship on an SMT line in my hometown, I didn’t think twice about what made my cellphone work or how my computer was powered. During my first week, my mentor gave me a handful of spare components from the scrap bin. They were so different from the through-hole components I had been working with. I had no idea this was how most circuit boards were made today, nor had I given thought to the companies that assembled them.
The next summer I applied to a circuit board manufacturer under the pretense that they were also in assembly because they had “electronics” in their name. What a shock during the interview when they showed me that the PCBs they made were the ones I had assembled just the summer prior (Funny enough, I interviewed a potential intern this summer and he had applied under the same pretense.) That summer, I learned so much about the electronics industry; it brought the awareness that I was missing previously. Suddenly, it was not just a summer internship for me but a future career. The endless opportunity and job security of the industry excited me. What my peers saw as a dying field, I saw as a limitless challenge. I have yet to be disappointed.
An Opportunity to Engage and Excite
After students become aware of the industry, it’s time to engage and excite them. This is where mentorship is huge. Although each of my mentors holds a place in my heart, there is one mentor who sticks out because they were closer to my age and showed me what was possible as a young person in the industry. Watching their success encouraged me to see where I could be in the next three to five years. Maybe that’s putting the cart before the horse, but I think placing less-senior engineers with their peers is one of the best ways to excite and retain them.
Half the battle is attracting new talent. However, I believe the even harder part is retaining talent. Although the reason for quitting a job is unique to the individual, there are common themes among this new age of employees. Long gone are the days of employees looking for as much overtime as they could get. Tomorrow’s engineers are placing a higher value on a work-life balance. They care more about experiences than belonging, and if something doesn’t feel right, they are quick to get rid of it. In fact, Gen-Z is estimated to change jobs 15–20 times during their career.
The generation entering the work force now wants to be challenged. They want good managers, and to feel like they are making a difference in the world. However, they are very interested in flexible schedules, the amount of PTO hours and, for some, the option to work from home. It also appears that budding engineers are looking for careers on the edge of technology. Research and development is becoming more desired but that will need to be balanced with a strong foundation of understanding. How then do we keep the basics interesting?
In the age of miniaturization and digitalization, it’s important to keep up with the awareness of the people behind the hardware. Let’s make manufacturing “cool” again. Who cares about designing the newest and coolest tech gadgets if we have no one to build them? The future is electronics, but we can’t get distracted behind the user interfaces and fancy software without risking the end of our hardware innovation.
This column originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of PCB007 Magazine.