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The Electronics Technician Shortage
September 1967 Popular Electronics

September 1967 Popular Electronics

September 1967 Popular Electronics Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Popular Electronics, published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

Electronics industry news has reported lately that there is a shortage of qualified technicians in the U.S., brought on because of the increased levels of manufacturing activity. The military has historically been a good source of techs that have four or more years of hands-on experience and a healthy dose of theoretical training. For the past couple decades, the overall troop size has been decreasing, contributing to the lack of technicians. Two-year colleges and vocational centers are still turning out graduates, but not many who also have field experience. This is not a new dilemma for employers, however. The industry goes through cycles just like necktie styles and sunspots; to wit, this article from a 1967 issue of Popular Electronics. I had to laugh when I read this part about presenting yourself to a company for employment. It reminds me of a Sgt. Joe Friday script on Dragnet (video clip) when he is lecturing a perp on his wrongdoings, "Most employers have had sad and costly experiences with alcoholics, so don't show up for an interview smelling like a brewery. Likewise, if you are a hophead, weedhead, or acidhead, stay out of the personnel office."

Straight-From-the-Shoulder Discussion of How to be Hired, How to Stay Employed, and Who Doesn't Get Anywhere

By Ronald L. Ives

The Electronics Technician Shortage, September 1967 Popular Electronics - RF CafeThere is, according to almost any personnel manager, a serious shortage of electronics technicians. Perusal of the "Help Wanted'" ads in almost any metropolitan newspaper reveals many openings for electronics technicians. Even such prestige employers as Bell Telephone Laboratories and Hewlett-Packard now seek out technicians whereas, not so many years ago, the waiting list for jobs at Bell Labs was longer than the personnel roster.

This shortage of electronics technicians is critical in many parts of the country. A few firms have even established training courses, tuition free, with guaranteed jobs for all who complete the course. Ads reading "Learn to be an Electronic Technician at our expense" offer a real opportunity to those with ambition, reasonable intelligence, and limited education, since some of these training courses are quite good.

Why a Shortage? The major cause of the electronics technician shortage is the enormous growth of the electronics industry. This growth includes not only the proliferation of the "amusement" part of the industry, but also the great expansion of military electronics, communication electronics, industrial controls, and the computer field. Medical electronics, geophysical electronics, navigational electronics, and meteorological electronics are other branches of the industry which are expanding at a rapid rate. Even law-enforcement agencies are now extensive users of electronics equipment.

But expansion of the electronics industry accounts for only part of the technician shortage. There is also continuous attrition in the ranks of electronics technicians. Most of the electronics and radio pioneers have now retired, died, or stepped up to administrative positions. Few, if any, of those who built the Paragon RA-10 receiver, once world-famous, are still working as technicians.

There is also a "loss off the bottom" - the lowest grade technicians, those who put the wires on the round gimmick with colored stripes through holes 6 and 7 of the printed-circuit board, work for a few months, or even a year, and then come down with "nerves," "the misery," etc., quit and go back on relief. Many of these jobs are being eliminated by automation.

The "loss off the top" is more serious, as it removes from the technician ranks some of the best workers. Often, these technicians, after working for a couple of years, leave to start businesses of their own. Some have saved up enough money to finish college; and some, after attending night classes for several years, earn a degree, and get hired as engineers by competitors. Also, many technicians graduate to better jobs as supervisors, field representatives, sales representatives, troubleshooters, computer programmers, etc.

... almost any competent technician can get a job ...

Although the combination of industry growth and the attrition of technicians gives the personnel office ulcers, it also keeps the pay of technicians at a healthy level and insures that almost any competent technician can get a job.

Who Gets Hired. When a firm advertises for electronics technicians, what do they actually want and who will they hire? Suppose the company of your choice has not advertised recently. Should you apply? If you belong to some minority group (almost everyone does), will it affect your chances of employment?

These questions are easy to ask but sometimes almost impossible to answer. Some companies have "secret" employment policies, interpreted by those in the personnel office. Although illegal, the department with the vacancy can be a closed corporation that will only accept applicants of a specific religion, race, political belief, or national origin. As a very general rule (there are exceptions) , successful medium-sized to large companies have honest liberal employment policies. In many of them, you will find John Lowell, Seamus O'Hara, Ikey Cohenstein, Woe Sin Wong, Atanacio Tafoya, and Crispus Attucks Jones working harmoniously on the same project. In the Southwest, you may also find Luis Oacipicagigua on the project roster. He is familiarly called "Chief."

Despite stories that women are employed only on the production line and as equipment operators, many laboratories employ women as electronics technicians in all categories. Some of them do outstandingly good work.

Assuming that you have applied for a job, either directly at the personnel office or by mail, you will probably be interviewed by several people. The first interview will be quite short, in most instances, to determine only your general suitability for employment. If you look like a disappointed beatnik or have applied for a chief engineer's job when you are only qualified for a position as assistant janitor (trainee), the first interview is as far as you will get.

Following this first interview, many companies give some sort of a written test. Most of these tests are quite fair and provide a pretty good evaluation of a man's ability; others are badly off the beam, being loaded with questions about variometers, gravity cells, electrolytic interrupters, and other pieces of radio equipment that are now relegated to the museum.

A few firms give what purports to be a psychological test, its aim being to eliminate "undesirable types" from among the applicants. Some of these tests are successful in eliminating the "lunatic fringe" but others are so loaded with "Hobson's choice" questions ("The lost books of Sennacherib state that Jehu was Constantine's charioteer, yes __ no __") which must be answered, that no ordinary person can get a passing score. There is no place, on many of these questionnaires, for "don't know." If you get stuck with one of these, play it by ear, remembering that almost any statement containing always or never is likely to be false.

... don't claim to know all about electronics ...

Because of Government contracts, most prospective employees must undergo a loyalty check of some sort, leading to a security clearance. This involves a fingerprint check and an investigation of the applicant's background. The loyalty "test" can be anything from a simple and straightforward outline of past experience and associations to a detailed questionnaire that might well make J. Edgar Hoover sweat. There is usually a lecture on security, sometimes given by an ex-FBI man who knows the score and at other times by a retired Army sergeant who "knows Communists."

After or while passing these hurdles, which may take from a few days to a few months, you will finally see the head of the department where the vacancy exists and get an idea of what the job will actually be. There may be a practical test at this stage of the game - soldering, reading wiring diagrams, using the oscilloscope, or something of the sort. Most of the questions are pretty straightforward and to the point, but watch out for a "stinker." If you are asked for the characteristics of an inverse bilateral frammistat or the circuit of a hypsometric depediculator, the correct answer might well be "I don't know." If you are qualified for the specific opening, this interview may be the shortest and simplest of them all.

Smaller companies usually have a shorter procedure in hiring but are often pretty demanding when it comes to qualifications and experience. Many non-electronic concerns have a semi-autonomous electronics department which maintains electronics equipment and fills the recurring demand "make me a widget that -".

Who Doesn't Get Hired. Many applicants for electronics jobs don't get hired. Folklore has it that they are not hired because they aren't competent. Actual reasons for "no hire" do include lack of training or experience, but most "no hires" are due to other things.

One of the surest ways of not getting hired is to have an overinflated resume. Be sure that your statements of education and experience will stand checking. Even if you are pretty good, don't claim to "know all about electronics."

If, when applying for a job, you look like an exhibit from an anthropology museum, a fugitive from the barber shop, or are several months estranged from the laundry and the bathtub, the personnel manager is not going to be favorably impressed. Unless you want to be a geek in the sideshow, a little attention to personal appearance will help chances of employment.

Most employers have had sad and costly experiences with alcoholics, so don't show up for an interview smelling like a brewery. Likewise, if you are a hophead, weedhead, or acidhead, stay out of the personnel office.

Too many grievances about previous employers impress most personnel men unfavorably. Unless you are out of a job because of a contract termination or a company merger, you left your previous employment because of some unsatisfactory condition. This is understood. But if you left each of the last six places you worked (for two months each) because everyone there was a !$#--//!! the interviewer is going to be a bit skeptical. Sometimes he knows the facts about your previous employer and if your tale of woe and injustice disagrees with his knowledge, he may have reservations about your employability.

... a technician's job is not usually a dead end ...

Although most electronics employers are fairly sophisticated, an applicant whose vocabulary is overloaded with four letter words is likely to find himself on the street again. Save the "blue" words for when you spill the solder pot into your right-hand pocket.

Who Doesn't Stay Hired. In any newly hired group of electronics technicians, some, or many, work out satisfactorily, remain on the job, and in the course of time get raises and promotions. In some of the older companies, we find senior technicians with twenty or more years of service and paychecks that make the Internal Revenue Service very happy. Many technicians who were trained during WW II are now section heads. A few have become engineers, chief operators, traveling troubleshooters, and customer contact men. A few are now either in business for themselves or have graduated "upstairs" to the board of directors. A technician's job is not usually a "dead end."

But, in any newly hired group, there are a number of technicians who don't stay hired because they are technically incompetent in one way or another. One of the most common failings is the inability to use technical knowledge. The sufferer from this fault can pass every written test, fill blackboards with correct formulas and wiring diagrams, discuss theory impressively, and generally act like a genius (junior grade) - but he can not make anything work.

Some relatively new employees are called to the security office after a few weeks of work and are seen no more. The trouble could be false statements on the employment application, concealment of a criminal record, or denial of security clearance for various reasons.

The technician who shows up for work under the influence of anything intoxicating or stupefying usually goes on permanent vacation rather suddenly. Absences every Monday morning, the day after every holiday, and the two days after each payday, usually make the section chief suspicious. So do shaky hands on return to work after each reported bout with "the virus." Filling your thermos full of "Old Bust Head" instead of coffee sounds like an excellent idea, but the foreman's grandfather knew about that one, too.

One sure way of getting plenty of leisure (without pay) is to try to force your religious or political beliefs on your fellow employees. If, while ostensibly employed by an electronics company, you spend a lot of time recruiting for the Charles Ash Society, organizing compulsory prayer sessions during coffee breaks, or bawling people out for not attending the Whoop and Holler Pentecostal Tabernacle, you are greasing the skids under your feet.

A related, but less serious evil, is taking off too many religious holidays. Most employers allow time off for religious observances, but if you take off on Good Friday, don't also take off for Yom Kippur and the first day of Ramadan.

Unreasonable friction on the job is a cause of many firings, as is intolerance of the reasonably normal traits of your fellow employees. A department where a number of the employees are "not speaking" is an unhealthy one and usually undergoes changes in personnel pretty regularly. Meddling in the personal affairs of your fellow workers just won't do, and loud personal criticism of the man at the next bench is completely out of line.

... "pilferage" causes a lot of technicians to lose jobs ...

A very common employee trait, carried on the books as "stock shrinkage"or "pilferage," but more commonly known as stealing, causes a lot of technicians to change jobs involuntarily. This ranges from the occasional "borrowing" of a resistor to fix the home radio to wholesale thefts of expensive or scarce components for sale. Many employers are pretty liberal about a few small parts but get downright "unreasonable" about recurrent disappearances of special integrated circuits, machine tool parts, or even oscilloscope plug-ins. Great care in keeping "company property" separate from "personal property" will not hurt your job tenure or chances for promotion.

There is also the recurrent and disturbing condition of a sterling character, of unquestioned competence and laudable diligence, who just doesn't fit in in a given department. Very often the reason for this cannot be determined and nobody seems to be at fault. Happily, most of these individuals recognize the situation, get jobs elsewhere before a crisis occurs, and frequently do well at the new job.

Where Employers Fail. Some "prestige" employers have an appreciable number of technical employees who stay with the company until retirement. However, a rather disturbing number of electronics employers have very high labor turnovers, so that anyone who has been on the job for as long as six months is regarded as a "veteran." Most of the stable electronics manufacturers and research laboratories fall somewhere between these extremes.

Almost any freshman student of economics can point out, with examples, an inverse relationship between company profits and labor turnover. But by the time he graduates, this student of economics will find that the situation isn't that simple; he will be firmly convinced that labor recruiting costs money and that excessive labor turnover indicates something wrong somewhere.

Many firms, usually the smaller and newer ones, start all applicants at minimum rate, regardless of training and experience; layoff whole departments indiscriminately at the termination of a contract; and then search madly for new help, a few weeks later, when they get a new contract. Such companies soon get a bad reputation in the community and the more competent and skilled workers will not apply there. New "hires," in consequence, are almost all from the bottom of the barrel - inexperienced, uneducated, or with bad records elsewhere.

Some employers, as a matter of policy, regard all technicians as second-class citizens and flood them with advice and admonitions on the intellectual level of the third grade in a school for retarded children. They sometimes even meddle in the personal affairs of their employees, usually in the guise of "security." These policies often alienate the more competent and experienced employees who begin "looking around" and usually find jobs where there is no meddling.

Employing (and usually paying) technicians at levels far below their competence also accelerates labor turnover. A frozen table of organization, with promotions only by seniority (if at all), leads to employee losses "off the top."

Employee irritation is also increased by a book of company rules as thick as a telephone directory, worded by a shyster lawyer, so that no matter how hard the employee tries to do the job right, he is in hot water. If the supervisor also gives hourly public bawl-outs, he will soon be calling on personnel for more technicians.

Incompetent supervision of various sorts also reduces the effectiveness of the technician staff and leads to either less than optimum production or increased labor turnover, or both. One of the chief problems, in many places, is an administrative section head who doesn't know how long it takes to do a given job. This same man is also prone to giving vague and unclear instructions and then complaining about incompetence when he doesn't get what he thinks he might have wanted.

A surprising number of companies do not supply adequate work space, sufficient tools in good order, and proper materials for their technician staff. Although a good technician can produce pretty good equipment with a box full of junk and some garage-type tools, the work will be better done, at much lower cost, if the tools and equipment are adequate. Most technicians get heartily sick of unnecessary "Goldberging" and soon go looking for jobs in places which are better equipped.

What Can Be Done. The shortage of competent electronic technicians has been with us for some time and will worsen in coming years. There just aren't enough people entering the profession to make up for normal attrition and the expansion of the electronics industry. This shortage, may retard industry growth and make maintenance and repairs of electronics equipment inordinately costly.

The electronics industry is not alone in having technician shortages. Good automobile mechanics, medical technicians, nurses, secretaries, engineers, etc. are also in short supply. As one personnel man remarked recently "there just aren't enough brains to go around." Lunkheads, it is true, are still plentiful, but there aren't many jobs available for the man who can't learn to pick up both handles of the wheelbarrow at the same time.

Part of the technician shortage can be alleviated by increasing training programs, provided people can be persuaded to respond. Most technician jobs today require high school graduation plus some additional training or experience. The Associate in Science (E.E.) programs in some of our junior colleges are a step in the right direction, but are hampered by a shortage of teachers. Some of the military training programs are quite good. Several of the correspondence schools give excellent theoretical background, but are unavoidably weak in practical applications. There are still a few self-taught electronics men of respectable competence, but most of them are not only already employed but are nearing retirement age.

There is a small reservoir of competent technicians which has not been tapped because of various company regulations and prejudices. For example, is it necessary for electronics technicians to pass an "Air Force" physical exam? This will eliminate the man with a wooden leg, but may not detect another man's wooden head. Does the use of bifocals bar a technician from employment? Why? Do all technicians have to be less than 35 years old ?Should a minor juvenile record bar a man from employment permanently? Is the "male only" restriction valid? Should a "solid citizen" of a neighboring country, such as Canada or Mexico, be barred from employment in most places because he is not a U. S. citizen? Is security being overused? Are the psychological tests given by a few companies valid or do they work against experienced personnel? Just how important is fluent English, especially in bilingual areas of the country?

Judicious relaxation of some of these regulations and prejudices could put a large number of technicians to work at all levels, not only ameliorating the technician shortage but reducing the relief rolls. In addition, company policies leading to upgrading of technical personnel would lessen the shortage at the upper levels, where it is reported to be most acute. A few manufacturers subsidize further study and profit by it in many instances. Company training programs also help in many cases.

There is, however, one "stinker" in the whole situation. Many of those who can become good technicians do so, but also have the ability to become good engineers, and do that too. The net result is that the economy has gained an engineer but lost a competent technician!

About the Author

Ronald L. Ives is a prolific author and has published hundreds of articles on electronics. Mr. Ives is currently associated with Metronics, Inc., Palo Alto, Calif. Born in 1909, he has a doctorate in geography, geology and anthro­pology. His long career in electronics - dating back to 1926 - has kept him in close contact with technicians.

 

 

Posted August 22, 2018

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