Anyone who has boarded a plane in the past several months knows this all too well: the near-term operations of airlines are up in the air. From smallest to largest, all the carriers have been dramatically affected by the post-COVID rebound in passenger air travel. Delta and United Airlines each cut 30% of their respective staff in 20201.
And while many observers point to the attractive buyouts the carriers dangled before critical employees (read: pilots) as means to cut costs amid the mass groundings during the pandemic, employment has shot up over the past 18 months.
Take Delta, for instance. The second-largest airline in the world has hired 18,000 new employees since January 2021. But even with its staffing back to 95% of what it was pre-COVID, capacity reportedly is some 10 percentage points lower. Reason: It takes time to train the newbies.
“The chief issue we’re working through is not hiring but a training and experience bubble,” said Ed Bastian, CEO, Delta.
And the more complicated the job, the longer the training period. Which reveals yet another crack in the fuselage: a lack of trainers. To wit: American says its pilots are basically stuck waiting for space in training classes to open, as the number of new hires far outpaces the available slots. The backlog is said to be six months or more.
The issue runs so deep, it has its own name: the Juniority problem, which means the state or fact of being junior in age, rank, standing, etc.
United has gone on the offensive, blaming—who else?—the government. United chief operating officer Jon Roitman estimates “over 50% of our delay minutes and 75% of our cancels in the past four months were because of FAA traffic management initiatives.”2
But all this comes back to the industry’s lack of foresight—some say unwillingness—to continue to invest in its workers during the inevitable cycles.
You know where I’m going with this.
The PCB industry is historically boom/bust. We are coming off a run of very strong years, and the forecast, according to Dr. Hayao Nakahara, the preeminent researcher in the industry, continues to look bright3.
But the graying of the industry is very real, and its long past time OEMs invested in recruiting and training the next generation of designers, design engineers, and manufacturing engineers. And yes, I am pointing at OEMs, since they are the top of the pyramid and ultimately their needs are the driver for the rest of the supply chain’s decision-making.
While we are excited at the prospect of new electronics engineering curricula finding its way into classrooms from New York to California, what’s available today is nowhere close to meeting the long-term needs of the industry. It goes without saying that more is needed in the way of practical training, be it in design, fabrication, or assembly.
At PCB West this October, designers and engineers can get that hands-on training. The program was developed to cross the spectrum from packaging to board design to fabrication to assembly and test, to ensure needs of each segment are communicated bi-directionally across the chain. With more than 110 hours of training scheduled, it’s the largest conference of its kind.
Unlike many conferences, PCB West focuses on in-depth training, as most presentations are at least two hours. It includes some of the leading experts on signal integrity and noise control, PCB layout, and manufacturing. Presentations will cover all sorts of new possibilities in design and manufacturing such as additive manufacturing, new substrate material choices, routing of DDR memory, and component selection, which is highly relevant given the current supply chain conditions.
Because PCB West is where the best design engineers in the country meet up, this is a chance to gain access to that knowledge. There is a real cost to “doing nothing” in terms of a company’s ability to stay on top.
Industry has asked a lot of their employees over the past couple years. As we learned in our annual salary survey this year (results are at pcea.net), design engineers cite keeping up with technology changes and company support for professional development workload as among the biggest professional challenges they face.
Let’s learn from the airlines, or, more precisely, their mistakes. It’s time for the push to onboard the next generation of engineers to take flight.
- “Air Travel Is a Disaster Right now. Here’s Why,” by Derek Thompson, The Atlantic.
- “United warns of even more flight delays and cancelations this summer because of an air traffic controller shortage,” by Taylor Rains, July 7, 2022, Insider.com.
- “NTI 100: The Unsinkable, Unstoppable PCB Market,” by Hayao Nakahara, July 28, 2022, Printed Circuit Design and Fab.
Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (pcea.net).