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April Editorial: Test engineering facing issues of “brain drain,” talent gap

April 1, 2019
EE Editor-in-Chief Mike Hockett discusses electronic test engineering's ongoing battle against veteran engineers retiring and being replaced with inexperienced talent, along with the challenge of recruiting young talent into an 'unsexy' industry.

Before joining Evaluation Engineering, I was the editor of two industrial manufacturing trade publications, and one of the most pressing topics among the audience of both was regarding a pending talent gap—a major inevitable problem that manufacturers are going to have, once enough of their baby boomer-era employees retire, and there’s not a big enough young talent pool to replace them.

As far as I can tell through my first six months here at EE, electronic test engineering is facing the same major challenge. When veteran test engineers retire, they take decades of test experience and knowledge with them. And unlike 30 years ago—before the need for software and design engineers skyrocketed with Silicon Valley’s tech boom—it’s substantially harder for test engineering firms to recruit test engineers than it was back then, or even just a decade ago.

In my short time at EE, I’ve spoken about this talent gap issue with a number of professionals in electronic test. Sometimes I’ve brought up the topic myself, and other times they’ve mentioned it and I would then pursue it. And still other times, I’ve overheard conversations on this topic at industry events. All in all, I’ve accumulated enough input to realize that the talent gap in test engineering isn’t a problem down the road—it’s here now.

At the International Test Conference in Phoenix, AZ, this past October, I had lunch with ITC general chair Li-C Wang, and this topic came up. Wang, professor and director of computer engineering at UC Santa Barbara, explained how today’s new engineering students want to go directly into software engineering, though he does what he can to teach them to pursue engineering for test. He said it’s essentially an uphill battle at this point, even though it’s easier to have software engineers learn testing basics than to have testing engineers learn software basics.

Other electronic test vendor representatives have discussed how new engineers are flocking to design engineering or pursuing a hybrid between software and design.

Like with industrial manufacturing, test engineering is at the disadvantage of not having the ‘cool’ factor of software and design. It’s hard to find young talent who want to work on a factory floor or in a testing lab when there’s the appeal of designing something new or improved or working on automation software.

Millennials now comprise the largest portion of the U.S. workforce, and a major shift in hiring practices has centered around hiring for cultural fit, rather than strictly an experience fit. There are certainly advantages to culture-based hiring, but in a field so technical as test engineering, the jury is still out as to whether it can be effective. At a recent industry event, I overheard a group of test engineering vendor representatives talking about the fear of replacing a veteran engineer with someone who may have the “smarts” but is woefully lacking in test experience. They were specifically concerned that an inexperienced newbie hasn’t seen nearly enough different ways that a device-under-test can fail, and won’t be able to recognize them when they happen.

Thankfully, vendors are responding to this "brain drain" by making major advances in the user-friendliness of instruments. More and more leading vendors’ instruments feature touchscreen displays and step-by-step test directions that make it easy for new engineers to get up to speed quickly.

Still, I want to know what other efforts test vendors are making to combat brain drain and the ongoing talent gap. Are you finding it difficult to find qualified test engineering talent? Where are you looking? How are you utilizing universities and technical colleges when you need to hire?

I’d love to provide a follow-up piece to this editorial with commentary from our readers on this topic. Shoot me an email with your thoughts at [email protected].

About the Author

Mike Hockett | Former Editor

Mike Hockett was Editor in Chief for EE from September 2018 to Sept. 2019. Previously he served as editor for two manufacturing trade publications: Industrial Distribution, and Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation. He began in sports writing for a trio of newspapers in Wisconsin and Iowa and earned a BA degree in print journalism from UW-Eau Claire.

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