Help Wanted With IMI’s Peter Bigelow

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In preparation for this month’s topic, especially what companies in our industry are currently experiencing when it comes to finding and hiring the right people, I sought out Peter Bigelow, president and CEO of circuit board fabricator IMI Inc. We spoke in February at IPC APEX EXPO.

Patty Goldman: Peter, let’s talk a little bit about what it’s like to find and hire people nowadays. We’ve devoted this entire issue to the “Help Wanted” theme. It all plays in: training, education, and finding qualified people. So, what’s happening?

Peter Bigelow: There are several aspects to it. The first is that I can’t believe we’re alone in having a reasonably seasoned, shall we say, staff. People we’ve had for years. They know what they’re doing. We’ve forgotten what we’ve taught them to be able to get them where they are, because much of it is tribal knowledge having been in the industry for years, been in our company for years, and migrated from one platform of equipment or technology to another. In some cases, taken old technology and reapplied to new. Part of the problem is that you’re dealing with an unknown. We’ve got people, but we don’t even know what they know. All we know is that they’re doing their job.

Then you have the second part, where some of those people want to retire or are coming to the age for retirement. You have to say, “OK, I need to bring in new people. Where do I find new people?” We’re up in the Boston area. We allegedly have a great work force. We have a very low unemployment rate, but it’s difficult to get people who want to be in manufacturing. It’s difficult to get people who want to be in manufacturing that is not biotech, cleanroom type of stuff. We’ve got plating lines, and we’ve got drill rooms. Yes, we’ve got a cleanroom, but you know everyone doesn’t work in that cleanroom. So that’s a tough work environment to sell when you’re interviewing people.

Then you have what I call the millennial issue, which is that their lifestyle is very different. We expect people to show up at a certain time and work a certain number of hours. At IMI, we’ve gone through several people who say they want more hours, they want to have that kind of structure, and when they get into it, they find it really difficult. “Do I really have to be at work at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning? I can’t take an extra half hour for lunch because I want to do something?” It’s a culture shock. It’s not just a culture shock for management, it’s for the coworkers. Then they’re saying, “Well how come they get to?” and “Why can’t I?” You get into those kinds of issues.

Then you get into the skill issue where you have people coming in that you must teach. In some cases, it’s the basics: “Can you read a drawing? Can you read a process sheet? Can you follow the process sheet? Will you follow the process sheet consistently?” They take shortcuts, they get creative, and you have to teach them that this is not the place to get creative. It’s a place to follow the process and raise your hand when you have a question. So when you put all those together, then yes, it’s awfully difficult to get good employees.

At IMI, we’ve gone through the evolution of placing ads; that doesn’t work. You have some people who are walk-ins, or word of mouth. That helps some. Then, where do you go next? You go to the vo-tech schools. At the vo-tech schools, everybody seems to want, again, not to be in our type of industry, or they don’t have the right skills. They’re more machinist skills than say, electronics skills.

We’re beginning to talk a little bit with the universities to see if we can maybe bring in a summer employee. We don’t have a formal coop program in place, but we’d like to see if we can develop anyone who might be interested in manufacturing. It’s a real problem.

Goldman: It’s an ongoing issue, and probably not getting any better.

Bigelow: We also have training issues with existing employees where different types of skillsets in technology are necessary. We’ve got a lot of people who know their job really well, but the increased level of verification/validation that our customers expect is forcing them to learn how to manipulate Excel spreadsheets and Word documents.

Goldman: Not always things they want to learn, I would guess.

Bigelow: Exactly. They have a tough time realizing that, and realize they already are using those skills, in many cases, at home. Instead of doing a letter to a friend or relative, they’re now doing it to a customer. They need to use our format so it’s consistent, and upload a picture into a PowerPoint so you can get it to a customer so they can see what’s going on. You’ve got those skillsets, and that’s the problem when you have a seasoned group. Now you’ve got new technology where they may or may not be as comfortable going in that direction. All the way around, it’s a problem. It’s been there; it continues. Where does that bring us?

What we are doing is realizing that we must start embracing change in how to train, how to hire, and how to get people on board. We don’t need tons, but we need some good people. We need to look at different types of training options. We do IPC-600 training. That type of stuff we were doing internally and that works well. We’re also looking at going to a web-based training company like Resource Engineering who do SPC and process-related training via the web.

Goldman: Do they have good programs that will help your people?

Bigelow: They have a manufacturing focus. Some of their courses are not perfect for our industry, but things like failure analysis, SPC, and getting people to be thinking about how to analyze problems are. We’re looking at using that kind of training. The nice part is that it’s online, it’s not a classroom environment, so it’s self-paced. We also see by self-paced training if somebody is really getting engaged or if they are not. If you have to keep pointing the pitchfork to say, “We need you to log on and keep going,” that tells you something.

Goldman: IPC has recently come out with their EDGE program. As I’m sure you know, everything on there is for assembly. So, I have been complaining about that. John Mitchell told me, “What do you guys want? Find out what should be on there for printed circuit boards.” Do you have any thoughts on that?

Bigelow: I do and I don’t. The EDGE program is great. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve been an advocate of IPC doing. IPC is standards. A lot of the time it’s a matter of, how do you then teach people how to follow the standards or apply those standards to their day-to-day job? And some of that requires some skillset. I don’t have a concise answer for what’s necessary, because I really need to sit back and see what they’re doing with the assembly side. Then I could say, “OK, that’s assembly; how do you relate that kind of training over to fabrication?”

A lot of things that we deal with you can teach. You can show someone and then get them IPC-600 certified, but then you have to show them in your plant where are the key areas that you can go and where you can get messed up. In any decision tree, there are certain key places where you better understand that area, because that’s going to make you successful or not successful. Part of that is, again, can be basic stuff like reading the print.

It can also be more advanced like, what data is important? How does the data relate to other data?

I would have to take a little different slice at it and say that based on IPC standards—because I do think it should tie into the standards, so someone is getting trained—there should be touch points saying, “This is covered in this standard, and this is covered in that standard.” So you understand how the pieces come together, and you understand how important those standards are. It may not be one that you touch every day; it may not be the number one that you use, but they all do interlock. The surface finish is really important. So is lamination and so forth.

Goldman: It’s all critical.

Bigelow: All critical, and they all tie together. If you screw up in one place, you may not see the symptom until you get further down the line. I do think that there is a need for fabrication-centric training. My guess is it would have to be broken into a couple of categories. One would be for high-volume automated processing, versus batch processing. Every plant has some of both. It’s key that you do cover those two.

Goldman: At one time, there was a series of circuit board training videos done by IPC.

Bigelow: Yes, we still have some—in a VCR format!


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