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Who Replaces the Old Guys?

The Thursday, July 17, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal contained an article with this provocative title: “Just whose job is it to train workers?” While highlighting the training efforts of a manufacturer of dental instruments in Chicago, the article makes the larger point that employers nowadays expect new hires to be plug-and-play, i.e. possessing all the required skills to do the job from Day One, with no supplementary training required or needed. The article presents Hu-Friedy, the dental instrument maker, as an exception to current practice, in that they actively train and retrain line workers in the finer points of metallurgy behind the instruments they make. Successfully graduating workers understand the “why” and not just the “how” of what they do. Hu-Friedy has established a bona fide apprenticeship program to develop their engineers and, perhaps their managers, of the future. The article emphasizes that Hu-Friedy is very much in the minority when it comes to in-house worker training. The author’s tone is not optimistic for the prospects of worker training in American industry generally.

This brings us to test engineering as a profession. Our profession finds itself at a crossroads, personnel-wise. Today it is populated mostly by old guys. (Yes, ladies, it’s mostly guys. I’m not offering an opinion, just stating the facts.) Not to say that there’s anything wrong with old test engineers; there is lots of precious tribal knowledge there. And venerable crustiness has its own endearing charms. But the operative adjective is “old.” Medical breakthroughs notwithstanding, mortality at this writing remains an irreversible process. The cold fact remains that none of us emerges from this world alive.

With that sobering reminder, how do we sustain the noble guild of Test Engineer? Abundant evidence suggests that there remain many bad boards in production and in circulation, with the consequent demand to diagnose them by hardware and software methods. It follows that skilled people are needed to design that hardware and software to established methods and, in some challenging cases, develop new techniques as technology advances. Discouragingly, there is no academic curriculum culminating in the test engineering degree. You can mold a promising EE graduate into a test engineer, pairing them with one of the aforementioned old guys for an apprenticeship period and then cut him or her loose on the production floor. Good in theory. But where to find them? The problem is that many EE and computer science graduates want to design apps, get rich and retire at 28 to found philanthropies and use their vast experience to tell the rest of us how to live. Apps are sexy and perceived as a lucrative gateway to a fulfilling life. Test engineering, involving as it does actual knowledge, and real work, is decidedly not sexy. Apps bring happiness. Test engineering, done correctly, often delivers bad news. Who wants that?

Sex appeal deficit aside, the need remains. Meanwhile we need to do something, because pickings are slim in the pool of available talent. Anecdotal evidence suggests the good ones are employed. Or retired. Or dead. The responses we’ve received to help wanted inquiries this year are underwhelming. Consider the following excerpts from recently-received resumes of so-called “Test Engineers”:

Item #1: “Experienced with fine-tuning ICT programs on the Agilent 3070 to detect manufacturing faults and defected (sic) components.”

Translation: Experience with widening tolerances to make failures go away.

Item #2: “Modify test codes on Agilent 3070 due to ECO changes, validate new test fixtures (hardware/software) prior to releasing to production. Daily support on test & all testing aspects.”

Translation: Works with an outside vendor, quite possibly an independent testing service, who fixes things when they break. Takes credit for their work.

Item #3: “Ability to fine-tune Agilent 3070 along with debugging failure analysis.”

Translation: There’s that fine-tuning skill again. What you don’t know won’t hurt you. Unless of course you are tasked with designing a fixture and program from scratch.

Item #4: “Understand field test issues and generate status reports on testing such as defects for field issue with detailed description of test scenario and test environment. Responsible for escalations from test engineering groups for test software/hardware related issues. Addressed customer escalations, redesigns, and design verification tests, cost reductions, component qualifications and quality improvements for sustaining products.

Translation: Don’t let me anywhere near the actual equipment used to do this.

All I want is a qualified person who can take a customer’s CAD, schematic, bill of materials, and associated drawings; determine the appropriate test platform; and then execute that determination from start to finish, as quoted, to fulfill a customer’s statement of work. Simple. So you would think. But none of the resumes whose excerpts were cited above meet those qualifications.

So where are those who can do this?

Definitely not at the two big, well-known, well-endowed research universities in or near Silicon Valley (the ones with the football teams). When we approach them directly, or through trade association mentoring activities, they won’t give us the time of day or even acknowledge our existence with the honor of a reply. Apparently what we do is beneath them. Their graduates want to design apps.
The second-tier private universities aren’t much better. They won’t return our phone calls and emails either. Manufacturing and testing in their minds is for little people. Certainly not for their graduates, who have important work to do. Manufacturing, and testing, in their worldview, are not important work.

We have begun talking with the engineering departments in the state colleges and smaller universities (the so-called “commuter schools”). Their students tend to have worked hard for everything they have, take nothing for granted, are humble in origin, and have no built-in sense of entitlement. Often these students are the first in their families to go to college. The state schools have brought groups of promising electrical and mechanical engineering students through our facility for visits, in the hopes of striking a spark of interest among a handful of them to pursue test engineering as a worthwhile career. This has promise. We will continue to cultivate these relationships in the hope of finding one or two earnest apprentices in the coming 12 to 18 months.

Meanwhile: Another unorthodox approach is to break free from the constraint of degree credentialing and identify promising talent inside and outside our company who lack the paper but have interest, drive, curiosity, and demonstrated intellect in abundance, and who genuinely wish to better themselves. In other words, grow our own. This, too, has promise and obvious benefits on many levels. Not the least of which is that it signals to our workforce that ambition and interest has the potential to be rewarded, just as Hu-Friedy demonstrated in the article cited above.

We are going to go down these parallel paths in the coming years. Which will prevail? I don’t know. Perhaps both. All I know now is that we are willing to make the attempt. Our continued survival as a test engineering company rests on it.

Count on me to write again in the near future with a progress report. Perhaps by then Hu-Friedy will have company.