To attract real talent, we must commit to look and act like a world-class tech industry.
One of the more enjoyable activities this time of year is to get together with old friends and business colleagues. Maybe it’s a sign of age, but it sure seems that I know more people who “were” in the industry than who “are” sharing the trenches with me. It's concerning to realize how many bright and talented people have left and how few seem to be stepping in to take their place.
The talent drain is real. Our industry was created by technologically bright people with entrepreneurial skills and business savvy. They developed processes, created products and forged an entire industry. Between normal aging and shrinking numbers of companies in historic industry epicenters, the talent pool is, shall we say, thinning.
For years the industry has contracted in terms of employees and shifted toward “production” economies (vs. “innovation” economies). With the West relatively light on companies and the East’s uncontained growth, developing a solid talent pool that is mobile and readily available has become far more difficult. So many new businesses focus almost exclusively on ultra high-volume applications, and the game is truly changing.
Where are the industry leaders of the future? Not the financial or sales leaders, but industry technology leaders – the people who understand materials, application and process, and know how to make them all work together? And when we find them, how are we going to keep them?
If recent history is any indicator, we have our work cut out for us. For an industry that has been the poster child of “high tech,” technical people are scarce. Most companies – OEMs, EMS and fabricators – are managed by generalists. Management may know how to engineer a balance sheet, but they are not competent in shop-floor processes and end-customer applications that drive our industry. Most companies have sales staff that boast technical degrees but have never held positions on the technical side, with the possible exception of their first job. The days of the designer or process chemist starting a company are long gone. Ditto for the founding entrepreneurs who may have had their management skills honed while with Tier 1 entities, but who had enough faith in their technical expertise to start or manage companies that redefined process technology.
Do you need the same level of technological talent today as you did back then? Maybe one reason margins have eroded is that the sales and marketing model has shifted from technological expertise to the more commodity-focused “don’t ask, don’t tell” cyber-portal approach. Those selling to technology-driven applications and customers may actually need a technologically competent sales staff! Ditto for manufacturing. When acceptable yields are measured by process excellence, you need a technologically focused staff to balance capability with first-pass yield.
How can we replace the retiring technical ranks? I have heard many voice frustration over finding talent and few who have had great success. Even for large companies, hiring and retaining top talent is daunting. For those near the bottom of the industry pyramid, the financial wherewithal to hire can be close to impossible.
Emerging companies in Asia, where educated engineering talent is readily available, have it easier. These companies just need to provide the environment to learn, experiment and contribute. Like any business, the entry staff needs to feel their contributions will be valued, with a path for promotion. And yet, the dynamic environment of technology combined with emerging market offers provides the setting for high turnover and low employer/employee loyalty. The sheer numbers of available talent may look appealing, but with those numbers come challenges too.
Mature markets – regions that are less dynamic but still demand excellence – have a different challenge. Our challenge is twofold: to believe in your company, and to inspire new and veteran employees to make a difference, today and long-term.
That is only the beginning. Why leave a position at an established company in a different industry or graduate from college only to work in a company that looks physically and attitudinally dead? To attract talent means making the commitment to look and act like a world-class technology industry. Too many companies look like old mills about to fold. And you often act how you look. A little enthusiasm and some elbow grease can change the appearance and attitude in a way that will attract talent.
Which brings me back to those who are no longer in the industry. Too many left not because they wanted to, but because they were victims of kneejerk budget cuts by non-technical management of struggling companies. It is clearly documented that many of those struggling companies failed because they did not have technically competent people to round out the capability and make the improvements needed to compete. More than ever, we need technical people in all facets to ensure we remain a value-add industry.
We can’t outsource engineering, CAM services, process management and all else that makes up our technical value-add quotient without, at some point, losing control of our destiny. Sans a concerted effort to attract, develop and reward technologically talented people, innovation, profitability and overall success will become more elusive – no matter where you are located.