The Weakest Link: Musings from SMTAI

Due to an illness, I jumped in to co-chair a session at SMTAI yesterday. In doing so, I had the pleasure of spending a little time with a longtime industry machine designer. Afterward, he asked an interesting question:

Talking to all these (industry veterans), I’ve seen a common thread. Almost all are unhappy and hoping to make it to retirement while continuously looking over their shoulder and waiting for the shoe to drop. Perhaps it’s a function of have been through too many downturns. Almost all say they are working harder than ever for less money than ever. Staff reductions of years ago have never been replenished.

Griping aside, they are all keenly aware that there is no one to step in to fill their shoes, be it process engineers, quality managers, field service, you name it. They all state they’re on their own with no replacements in sight. What’s your take on this and if they’re correct, will the industry grind to a halt?

Great question! I agree with the sentiment expressed — small/no raises, more work, no bench from which to develop new engineers. These have been problems for the past 10 years.

That said, I see some underlying trends that make me more bullish than some. For starters, there’s never been more entrepreneurs at the college level. I have been spending time researching tech incubators and have come away stunned at the level of talent and energy. The so-called hobbyist market is booming: 140,000 attendees at the Maker Faire event in San Mateo this year, and they all come to see innovation in action. In researching open source pick-and-place software earlier this year, I learned that there are some 2,000 desktop placement machines out there, and an engineer is behind every one.

There is an abundance of talent designing and building electronics hardware and related tools these days. They just aren’t doing it at the usual places like IBM or HP. It’s more under the radar, but it’s there. Google, for instance, has 5,000 workers doing box build and test in Mountain View. There is a lot of hiring going on at growth companies; it’s just no one talks about it.

During the SMTAI Keynote this week (a really interesting, if a bit inflated, talk on the F-35 warfighter by retired US Navy General Bob DuLaney), I asked whether he saw a way we could better leverage such state-of-the-art technology in order to get more engineers interested in the industry. His response was that he couldn’t see how any engineer wouldn’t be excited to work on such a project. Point, DuLaney, but if I had it over, I would have asked the question this way: How could a company like Lockheed Martin ensure product builds come in on time and on budget when the supply chain it depends on for materials, bare boards, assemblies and so on is struggling mightily to recruit and retain top engineering talent?

For my bigger concern is really the lack of interest by new engineers in the smaller companies that supply the big ones. The Lockheed Martins and Raytheons will always attract talent. But they buy much of their bare boards and assemblies from companies that are considerably smaller, local and less well known. Those firms are the ones having trouble recruiting and keeping talent. For those who do it well, it’s become a strategic advantage. And as long as the Tier 1s have to outsource, their ability will always be limited by the weakest links of their supply chain.