The past 12 months have been highly transitional for the printed circuit industry. After years of vast migration of manufacturing to Southeast Asia, some stability has been achieved, and in some cases, programs are coming back to North America and Europe.

Even in China, the upheaval has been pronounced, as companies flee the southern coastal region for more inviting (read: lower labor cost) climes inland. Still, given the uncertainty that comes with volatile swings in orders, shaky financial footings and scarce employment, it’s no surprise many workers cast about as if they have been in a war zone.

Some literally have. And if a pair of New England companies has their way, hundreds more will soon.

Veterans Assembled Electronics ( is a service-disabled veteran-owned small business that trains, certifies and starts veterans on careers in electronics manufacturing. Founded last year, VAe has teamed with the Department of Veterans Affairs VR&E Program to provide a six-week electronics training program, under which veterans obtain the five major IPC certifications.

Founder John Shepard, who has spent 30 years in the computer and biometrics industries, says he originally set out to assemble a team who could win a piece of the millions in Department of Defense contracts set aside for disabled veterans. In the face of uncertain pricing and component availability, however, he shifted VAe’s model to training veterans to do that work. A US government plan known as the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) VetSuccess Program (or Chapter 31) provides funding to train veterans whose disability otherwise interferes with their ability to be employed. Shepard received authorization by the VA for the training, and while initially he planned to offer training in-house, he quickly saw the value in leveraging existing infrastructure.

Enter EPTAC. Shepard approached the longtime IPC training center, recalls president Mark Pilkington, pitching certification for disabled veterans. “That first day, we talked for several hours. He needed a partner to help execute this. I thought it a viable opportunity to give back. You can start to lose your perspective in making a difference. This is a little more tangible: You can see the progress [of the students]. They are self-sustaining. They have contributed to serving the country. It feels good to do something worthwhile.”

EPTAC, which cut its typical training fees, provided the VAe students with the whole gamut of certifications, from basic hand soldering to IPC-A-600 qualification. Working with novices was daunting at first, Pilkington admits. “We train business to business. Most of the people have a background in electronics manufacturing. These guys were brand new to the industry. It was kind of intimidating, but they performed really well. IPC-A-600 is a difficult program, but they made it through.
“And when they are done,” he adds, “they have every single certification IPC has to offer. It’s the first time I’ve given so many certificates to one individual.”

To date, seven vets have passed the program, and the placement rate has been high. If Shepard’s vision is realized, some 300 veterans will be certified in all five programs over the next 24 months. But he is measuring success not on the number trained, but the number hired and the sustained value they deliver to the employer.. To that end, Shepard has been in contact with Jabil and Plexus about their future needs, reasoning that he could help provide a steady flow of certified operators. “We would do the training at our expense specifically to their headcount and criteria, so they get a highly trained mature veteran with all five certifications for bare boards through rework and hand soldering. They won’t pay any [additional training costs]; the VA pays us to train that veteran. It’s a great opportunity for the veteran and for the employer.”

Pilkington says the arrangement has given him new admiration for EPTAC’s instructors. “Their ability to deliver this material to people who had no previous exposure to it and successfully get them through the certification has been satisfying,” he says.

Shepard, who came home from combat in Vietnam with a variety of ailments from hearing loss to a knee injury, sees opportunity. There are dozens of VAs and thousands of disabled vets across the country, and each one he trains and places is further validation of his vision.

The tragic suicides of so many workers at Foxconn’s China plants cast a harsh light on the conditions at electronics factories. Yet the swell of criticism helped force wages higher, and may over time spur better lives for hundreds of thousands of lower-paid employees in a variety of industries. We may well look back on 2010 as the Year of the Employee. If so, VAe and EPTAC will have helped make it so.

Rewarding experience. Entries are being accepted for the annual NPI Award, given to the best products for design, fabrication, assembly and test introduced in the past year. We are pleased to announce the 2011 NPI Award will again be presented at Apex. Visit or for more information.

All our best for a healthy and happy new year.

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