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Dan Patten is the general manager at BEST Inc.—a rework, repair, and training facility that just had one of its busiest training years of the past 21 years. I sat down with Dan to discuss the drivers behind the recent uptick in training from U.S. companies—from contract-driven training for certification levels to newfound demands from quality departments—and why reinvesting in the workforce is beneficial to all parties involved.
Barry Matties: I’m here with Dan Patten of BEST Inc.—Business Electronics Soldering Technologies. First, why don't you give me an overview of what your company does?
Dan Patten: Sure. BEST, Inc. is a facility located in Rolling Meadows, Illinois doing PCB rework/repair, solder training, and supplying custom soldering tools to help companies rework/repair their PCB assemblies.
Matties: Reworking is a double-edged sword—nobody wants it, but we have to do it.
Patten: Yes, and in that sense, we're like the plumbers. You have to know who to call when something goes wrong. It's either too high of a number of things to rework within your own contract manufacturing, or if it's too complex. That's where we get involved. Our specialty is BGA/BTC rework.
Matties: You're in a unique position because you really get to see the trends of errors. What trends do you see most frequently?
Patten: With rework and repair, the biggest difficulty is smaller components and dense population. Having to rework something that is tightly surrounded by passive components that can be disturbed when you're reworking an area is difficult. The density is probably the most challenging thing that we're dealing with daily. Nobody makes their board to be reworked.
Matties: Exactly. You don't design for rework.
Patten: No, you do not.
Matties: Are people hiring you to come in and actually rebuild or repair, or do they do a combination of having you go and teach their team as well?
Patten: It's a combination. We have the unique ability to train, and we're a master IPC site, so we train trainers, which gives us the opportunity to have one of the best-trained staffs of rework technicians in-house. When we work with clients, most of the time they come to us with a pre-diagnosed problem, and they'll supply us with the boards and the area. It might require a profile development of how to rework this as not to disturb the original manufacturing process or to mimic it as closely as possible 10–20% of the time. We either do the work or a profile development, and then train their employees how to do the work. It goes both ways.
Matties: Training is an area industry-wide where we see an increasing demand. Are you experiencing the same thing?
Patten: We are. This is one of our busiest years to date in 21 years of training.
Matties: What do you attribute that to?
Patten: That's an excellent question. Some of it caught us by surprise with a re-shoring of electronics manufacturing.
Matties: We hear a lot in the news about how low employment is, how there are more jobs than there are employees. Are companies trying to bring in training as a way to show that they are investing in their employees or to help retain employees?
Patten: Yes, there's some of that, and the other thing that we've picked up on is companies are investing in training to almost judge potential employees or for placement. If they can pass a particular training, then they are on a path for this kind of a role versus that kind of a role. We're seeing more of that and more risk in U.S. companies spending money on training, which is critical.
Matties: I think part of it is training is considered almost a luxury in down economies, right?
Patten: It is. It's the classic argument of, “We can't afford to train or we can’t afford to not train because we'll be left behind.”
Matties: Now that the economy is rising, there's extra money. Do you think that's playing into this? And what sort of a percentage increase do you see from the financial side?
Patten: Yes, I think it is. In training this year, we're in the neighborhood of 20% more than our projection and it was an aggressive projection.
Matties: When someone hires you to come in, what sort of expectations do they have?
Patten: The expectations are that their students will gain a more thorough understanding of the proper techniques for soldering or inspection. Further, that they'll be certified to specific standards and levels of quality, and they expect that to be based on universally accepted skill sets.
Matties: What's driving people to have training?
Patten: Half of our requests come in looking for a specific certification level, which is most likely contract driven. The CM’s contract will say, “A certified employee in these credentials must complete it.” So, they will come to us saying, “I need my employee certified to these credentials,” and then we will come in and do it. Other times, it will be driven by the process. “We need these seven people brought up to a skill set in these techniques,” and then we'll train specific techniques.
Matties: What sort of people are filling these jobs?
Patten: The employees that are filling these technician-level jobs—whether it's an operator doing hand soldering skills or an inspector looking for errors in the assembly process—they're not typically a highly educated workforce. They usually aren't college educated or engineers; they are entry-level employees.
Matties: Trained through the process.
Patten: Yes. A welder might go to a welding trade school for a year to develop a certification program that's developed two standards, and then they can go on any job and perform it. It's not the same for soldering skills. This is the education that should be trade school education, but we're combining it into a week to three weeks of intense, hands-on training versus a year of school or technical school. They're bypassing that and getting entry-level employees who may not have these skills and giving them a skill that they've never seen before. They've never held an iron or inspected a product before.
Matties: That's a great way of classifying it. It's entry-level employees. Back to the market drivers, part of the demand is that there are new capabilities and research in manufacturing in America and these individuals are just being forced to train to get the work.
Patten: Yes. We lost the workforce of hand solder technicians 20–30 years ago because so much got offshored and automated that we weren't assembling by hand anymore and we lost that skill set. This is not unlike how we've largely lost the machinist skill set; it's just not common anymore. We have to rebuild that with entry-level employees.
Matties: If I'm an employee reading this interview, what sort of gain in position and finances would I achieve by investing in my education in this manner?
Patten: From an employee point of view, with a couple of weeks of training and successful certification, you could easily raise your rate by a few dollars.
Matties: That's substantial to me.
Patten: That is very substantial.
Matties: And for the employer?
Patten: For the employer, now you have a standards-based skill set that you can count on. All the training is to IPC’s Class 3 certification level, so you're getting a solid foundation of employees that are trained on the same standards worldwide.
Matties: It also gives your marketing team an incredibly strong selling point to say, “Here's how we're investing in our training, and here's the level of expertise you're going to have if you do business with us.”
Matties: Do you see marketing departments taking advantage of that storyline?
Patten: I don't yet. The engineering departments are probably the most common driver. Lately, quality departments are the ones demanding a broader employee base get trained because it helps with growth.
Matties: This is a very interesting topic. I really appreciate your time and insight on this topic today. Thank you very much.
Patten: Thank you.