Mike Buetow

You know the labor situation is bad when even the Air Force is getting involved to find solutions.

Indeed, as was recently announced, the Air Force Research Laboratory is working with NextFlex to come up with ways to attract students to careers in technology and science.

NextFlex isn’t a random choice. It was formed under the auspices of the US Department of Defense’s Manufacturing Technology Program. As one of eight DoD Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, the consortium is a partnership among the DoD, industry and academia. Its specific focus is development of flexible hybrid electronics (FHE), and to develop an education and workforce development program.

To the latter, the goal is nothing less than the creation of a skilled pipeline of STEM talent ranging from R&D to manufacturing. To that end, NextFlex is working on training and recruitment programs that work hand-in-hand with existing curricula. Called FlexFactor, this model is considered far more effective than designing a program from scratch and convincing institutions to adopt it.

In these programs, students attempt to address real-world problems, create the hardware that might solve that problem, and design the business model for their solution. They are similar to capstone projects at universities such as Rochester Institute of Technology, which go a long way toward resolving the criticism that higher education teaches only theory and leaves graduates woefully short on relevant industry experience.

“Colleges adopt and run FlexFactor for local high school students in their service area as a means of engaging students with STEM pathways in higher education,” says Emily McGrath, workforce development director, NextFlex. “So, although the participants are all in high school, the teams represent their colleges (not their high schools) in the finals because we work with the colleges, not the high schools, to run the program.”

This is appealing, I think, because today’s students seem much more driven by hands-on instruction and an accelerated path to accomplishment.

One of the facets of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association is to promote printed circuit engineering as a profession and to encourage, facilitate, and promote the exchange of information and integration of new design concepts through communications, seminars, workshops, and professional certification. So central is training to our mission, we spell it out in our bylaws.

We have affiliated with PCE-EDU, a training company established by some of the leading names in printed circuit engineering and manufacturing tooling. They include Rick Hartley, Mike Creeden, Susy Webb, Steph Chavez, and Gary Ferrari. They have developed a 400-page handbook (Printed Circuit Engineering Professional) that covers more than 65 major topics ranging from design to materials and fabrication processes. (I should note several of the aforementioned experts will be presenting at our PCB East conference in Marlboro, MA, in April.)

To teach the principles set forth in the Printed Circuit Engineering Professional curriculum, PCE-EDU has set up a five-day course covering the basics of the profession, materials, manufacturing methods and processes; circuit definition and capture; board layout data and placement; circuit routing and interconnection; signal-integrity and EMI applications; flex PCBs; documentation and manufacturing preparation; and advanced electronics (energy movement in circuits, transmission lines, etc.). At the end of the workshop, registrants may take the optional certification, called the CPCD, or Certified Printed Circuit Designer. PCEA is the registrar and certifying body for the CPCD.

Again, the emphasis is on real-world engineering and design, not pie-in-the-sky theory. Students are taught facts and principles in a tool-agnostic way. One medium-term goal is to get institutions to adopt the CPCD, much in the way they are latching onto FlexFactor, so students are not just aware of careers in printed circuit engineering and manufacturing, but prepared for them.

Not so long ago, a Lockheed-Martin engineer keynoting an industry conference extolled the virtues of the F-35 joint strike fighter. And I admit, the war-fighter is a freak of advanced engineering. But after his presentation, I asked what L-M was doing to compete with the Facebooks and Googles to attract the next generation of engineers. His somewhat incredulous “what, me worry?” response: “Who wouldn’t want to work on a machine like this?”

The answer, of course, is far too many people.

Covid has highlighted the skilled labor shortage experienced at many technology companies over the past three decades. Finding the right employees is an ongoing industrywide problem. Fortunately, programs by organizations like NextFlex and PCEA are starting to fill the void.

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