The window to identify and train the next generation of designers is closing. What we can do about it. Has anyone seen the next generation of PCB designers?
This was a rhetorical question posed by then-editor Kathy Nargi-Toth in PCD&F's 2007 salary survey (December 2007). The response: a collective silence, at least until someone whispered, “No, we have not seen them,” because for the most part they don’t exist.
Most readers probably quickly continued to read the article to see whether, based on the national average, they should request a raise. Given that answer (“No, we have not seen them”), they all probably got one. For the record, the average age of a printed circuit board designer in the US is in the mid-50s; a fair number will be retiring within the next five to 10 years.
There are many experts in our field of PCB design, but are there many leaders? A famous quote may help us answer that question: “If you think you are a leader, look behind you to see if anyone is following you.”
Many of us have been fortunate to have worked in this chosen profession for many years, and we wish to thank all those before us who apprenticed, mentored, and trained us. Design is a great profession and rewarding on many fronts: technical knowledge, job satisfaction and a high-paying professional income. We’re hoping to inspire the reader to consider what part we can each play to bring into the industry the next generation of PCB designers.
To begin, we attempted to consider all different perspectives of those who might read this, and admit it was a difficult task. Our point is not to cast blame or aspersions against any individual or group. It is our assumption that most people and industries typically seek what is in their best interests and then act accordingly. Unfortunately, sometimes that may mean long-term good is sacrificed for short-term need.
This idea was reinforced at a recent industry meeting in San Diego in February, where a presenter asserted that “price is what you pay in the short term, and cost is what you pay in the long term.” His point was that saving on the price may cost much more in the long run. Our field of PCB design is about to experience this phenomenon. Can you imagine one day in the not-too-distant future where an engineering manager will go to work only to find the entire PCB design department has retired and there is no one to take their place? The time to recruit, train and develop the new PCB designer won’t be then. Rather, the time is now.
We will share some opinions and some observations in an effort to understand how our industry ended up in this situation. We’re sure you may be able to find exceptions to our opinions and experiences but please don’t discard the general concept we’re trying to convey. The only way we are bound to repeat history is to not learn from our mistakes.
Entering the Field
Most PCB designers entered the business from the drafting or technician field or from a friend’s reference. There are few college programs and fewer, if any, PCB degrees that you can get as an entry to the profession. Once in the PCB design profession, there are several training and development programs to pursue, and we encourage everyone to do so. As a manager of PCB designers, there is one trait that is looked for specifically. We call that trait “detailed packaging skill.”
It looks like this: When friends are moving and they ask for my help, they do not want me carrying their belongings to the truck. Rather, they want me inside the truck making sure that everything fits and has the best chance of remaining safe and secure during the ride. This distinction is what makes PCB design not just a trade but a skill. Many engineers have attempted PCB design because they comprehend much of it, but eventually concede that it may not be a skill they inherently possess.
From a historical perspective, when many people entered the profession, they came in as test technicians, trainees or junior drafters/designers. They learned using the system of OJT, or on-the-job training. They often worked in a large group, with a coworker assigned to mentor, train and develop them into competent designers. Eventually, they were released to perform tasks that steadily grew in responsibility. They then continued their career development using industry training, seminars, certifications, etc., but the main ingredient was mentorship.
What then occurred was industry downsizing, outsourcing and moving jobs offshore. The bulk of work was left to the few senior designers left standing; they would be asked to do it all. Not many new people were being brought into the industry. The remaining senior designers could demand a higher wage, which was our right. This development was exacerbated by some software vendors that saw the shortage of PCB designers and attempted to fill the gap by persuading the engineering community that they could just buy their software product, eliminate the PCB designer and push the “EASY” button.
As nearly every PCB designer is now sarcastically saying under their breath, “How’s that working for you?” The simple truth is the majority of engineers do not perform PCB design frequently enough to truly become consistently good at it, nor do they have the knowledge to design PCBs within the constraints of manufacturing requirements. Frankly, they really don’t want to be PCB designers. Forgive what may appear to be a rant, but we all have probably played a part in this situation of the shortage of PCB designers.
Where Do Designers Fit within the Enterprise?
If one surveyed every PCB designer whether they thought their position was valued and esteemed within the electronics industry, the overwhelming response would likely be "no." We perform a function that everyone wishes could be eliminated. To qualify our position, consider the following: Do you view PCB design as an asset or a liability? If an asset, you would want to give this function all you could to make it successful and esteemed for those involved. If a liability, you would take away resources and not esteem those involved. Most of us would say we are doing more with less and often disrespected as professionals.
So, we ask, why would we want to bring someone into the field of PCB design? Why not just collect higher wages and ride into the sunset of retirement? After all, the corporate world had no concern for me during the downsizing, outsourcing and migration of jobs elsewhere. Some software vendors often seemed to want to sell the tool to the engineer to just bypass our discipline of PCB design.
These may seem like reasonable conclusions, but we find them short-sighted and possibly damaging to our conscience. What guides business are the very real concepts of profits and losses, and not necessarily common sense. In that vein, we offer for consideration some simple dollar-and-cents reasons.
The senior designer can manage and utilize an apprentice to accomplish an increased workload greater than what they are currently taking on by using what we call “hands 3 and 4” to satisfy the more simple tasks of silkscreen, documentation, simple routing, cleanup, etc. This allows the apprentice to develop as they observe the mentor’s work methods and seek to emulate them. To that end, a designer would be able to provide more value to their company by meeting the commitments of increased production with accuracy, quality and cost savings. Meanwhile, the company would be securing the next-generation of PCB designers by passing on the internal methods and procedures it currently utilizes. It would not need to reinvent the wheel and suffer the consequences of not having this department staffed, which often leads to outsourcing and offshoring, followed by a loss of quality and control. It would also realize the cost benefits of two designers at the cost of 1.5, guided by one senior designer.
Developing New Designers
You may ask, How should we develop PCB designers now so that they are of value to everyone concerned? We look for candidates with the skill-set mentioned earlier: packaging and attention to detail. They also should have an in-depth understanding of computers and knowledge of electronics. Then we observe their interpersonal communication skills. Places we would recommend to look for these types of candidates would be trade schools such as ITT Tech (itt-tech.edu) or local community colleges. As employers we then offer to them a temporary-to-permanent position to observe them for a few months. We assign them to a senior designer and let them support the senior, doing the repetitive, lower skill-level work until they master each assigned task and are ready for the next one on the “OJT” ladder. We eagerly encourage and support them to pursue any and all means of training, education and industry involvement. We continue to assess their progress and observe where they are succeeding and where they may be struggling. A continued development path should always be kept in front of them or they stop maturing as a PCB design professional.
And to the software vendors: We are grateful for the tools you develop for us, including those that permit real-time collaborative design, regardless of location. We challenge you to continue to get the software into colleges and trade schools to increase your user base, expose your product and invest in our industry.
For the time being, we have the skills to train and develop the next generation of PCB designers. We should take advantage of this limited opportunity, before the window closes. The simple incentives to value this discipline of PCB design are in our collective interest. You are the leaders of today. Let’s get someone to follow in your footsteps for tomorrow’s benefit. Please share this perspective within your company and within the electronics industry.