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Electronics represent a call to action for US labor force

Written by Tim Sawyer.

In the famous words communicated from Apollo 13 to NASA operators. “Houston, we have a problem.” In this case, the problem is a shortage of semiconductors and electronic components desperately needed to operate the things we can’t live without like smart appliances, cars, tv’s and computers. This trend is likely to continue as demand for these goods increase. Consider the growth and subsequent demand for self-driving cars. According to an article in e-Magazine, conventional cars need 2000 to 3000 capacitors, whereas electric vehicles need an average of 22,000. Other factors contributing to the shortage are increase in demand of smartphones along with disruption in the supply chain during the pandemic. It’s important to note that much of the skilled labor and manufacturing capacity for these components exist outside the US. “Even before this pandemic, China posed an unprecedented competitiveness challenge in the advanced industries that are most critical to America’s economic wellbeing and national security,” said ITIF President Robert Atkinson. “We need to fortify the country’s most invaluable and irreplaceable industries.” So, when an event like the pandemic occurs, we have limited control over our own ability to ramp production. Which increases our reliance on countries like China and leaves us with a competitive disadvantage.

Creating a pipeline of electronics technicians is essential to support the advanced weaponry used in our military. The cost to purchase an F-15 fighter jet is approximately $80 million and the jet can fly up to 20,000 hours. The average cost per hour to keep the jet flying is roughly $29,000 bringing the total cost to $670 million. Most of the intelligence required to design the jet comes from engineers. The support and maintenance of the F-15 which represents the bulk of the total price tag, is done by avionics and electronics technicians. As the government intensifies their efforts toward policies to encourage needed investment in facilities and training, we must consider out of the box private sector initiatives to attract workers to these mission critical sectors of the US economy, especially as it relates to the area of electronics. As a nation we need to put our money where our mouth is. Starting with the way we prioritize and define educational funding.

Increasing labor in the high-tech manufacturing and electronics supply chain will require rethinking the current allocation of subsidized education dollars. We need to make it easier for workers to access the capital required to obtain the necessary training to fill these positions. Funds need to be allocated specifically for this purpose. Currently, it is difficult for a career changer or new entrant to the labor force to get a loan for electronics certifications at the same or similar terms as someone seeking a 4-year degree. This makes zero sense. If you look at the problem through the simple lens of supply and demand, we are clearly, NOT seeing clearly. There is an abundance of unfilled positions for certified technicians. As of the date of this article, a simple search on using the job title electronics technician showed 49,277 open positions. Employers are lining up, waiting to hire newly certified technicians. The pay scale on Indeed suggested these positions range from $25-$50 per hour. Which means these are high paying positions in an industry desperate to find qualified candidates. When you compare that to the employment prospects of a high school or college graduate, you can see the strong case for increase availability of government backed funding for skills training. When you factor in the amount of time it takes to certify a technician, as little as 18 weeks, versus the 2- or 4-year commitment to obtain a non-specific college degree, it’s obvious that investing in skills training looks like a pretty good bet. High demand, high growth, relatively short training period, in a part of our economy where we have a distinct competitive disadvantage. Most importantly, institutions like STRAC have 85% plus placement rates. This is a very efficient market dynamic for recent graduates with an abundance of room for an increase in the supply chain of incoming candidates. We need to get creative with public and private sector lending facilities to make funds available for all types of education including skills training. An important part of this is allowing technical students to borrow money with the same terms and deferred payment mechanisms as federal subsidized loans. This will solve at least part of the equation.

Equally as important to capital access is the need for early introduction and education around the many great careers available in electronics. As we discussed above, electronics are everywhere. We need to encourage career exploration starting in elementary school. The more we introduce and promote the exciting field of electronics the more likely we are to identify students with the aptitude and interest. Creating a pipeline in K-12 students will go a long way toward closing the gap in the supply and demand dilemma. Part of that is finding creative ways to make electronics fun. Recently, on the Right in Front of Me podcast I interviewed Charles Platt, best selling author of the book Make: Electronics. Charles has sold more than 250,000 printed copies of this popular book. According to Charles, he sited the key to the popularity of his book is the integration of specific fun activities kids and parents can share together. Starting with something as simple as touching a battery to your tongue to see if it’s still usable. During our discussion we mused over the decades old decline in middle and high school CTE programs. Long gone are the days of home economics, shop, graphics arts, and electronics labs. This trend has led to a lack of exposure to careers not requiring a college education. It’s hard to create interest in careers with absolutely zero exposure in our educational system. Charles expressed his disappointment on this trend as he feels kids are missing out on important skills development opportunities and the result is a lack of capable workers entering the field. I could feel Charles’ passion for electronics, and I would encourage parents to go to Amazon and order a copy of any one of the many books he’s written in the Make series.

Lastly, we need to recognize this situation for what it is. Throughout history, our free-market economy has always found a way to solve most supply and demand gaps. In the case of skilled electronics labor, you see industry stakeholders reacting with higher wages and intensified recruiting efforts. This will certainly help, particularly with post pandemic career changers looking for stable, high paying careers. The US Government has identified the lack of skilled labor and capacity as a major concern and competitive disadvantage. According to a recent article in EE magazine, “industry sources said DoD officials have been ramping up efforts to shore up the U.S. electronics supply chain. Among the initiatives are expanded use of emerging digital twin capabilities that would be incorporated into DoD-trusted fabs built around secure manufacturing processes.” In addition, a group of U.S. senators also has proposed a national advanced industry strategy that includes establishing a national industrial intelligence unit within the U.S. National Intelligence Council. This is all good news for the electronics industry. In addition, we must understand that we have created a cultural bias against important skills training and the associated careers. A recent survey showed high school students listed “manufacturing” as the least desirable career choice. We need to determine the underlying conditions for this perception and then set ourselves to the task of increasing education and promotion of these careers and stop referring to any non-college career as an “alternative”. As a society we can’t take for granted the high speed of our laptops, the luxury features in our cars, the ability to create a hot meal in 60 seconds or the crisp sound systems playing in our homes. All these items were built and manufactured with sophisticated electronics. As demand increases, we will need a new generation of skilled workers to manufacture these life changing products as well as maintain a global competitive advantage. After speaking with Charles, I came away with a sense of purpose, promising to do my part in attracting workers of all ages to the exciting industry of electronics. The STRAC Institute has been certifying electronics technicians for more than a decade. Their graduates are in high demand and their industry partners are lined up to hire them. The constant refrain across the industry is loud and clear, WE NEED MORE! If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about STRAC’s dual curriculum training program, click here to speak with admissions. You will be glad you did.