Preparing the Next-gen Tech Workforce

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Knowledge transfer, especially from the “graying-out” experienced technical workers in our industry, is a complex, difficult family of problems. It differs wildly between companies, and even within divisions of the same company.

As if we needed any more impediments to replacing the “old gray guard,” even in companies that have the internal wherewithal to train replacements, there are barriers from internal forces. One of the biggest barriers is the full manufacturing schedules in North American electronics companies that don’t leave any slack time—and the 40-hour work week is a complete fantasy for many. 

We can look at it from a slightly different perspective. Decades of margin pressure from, among others: 

  • The chicken and egg dynamic of outsourcing 
  • “Leaning” of tech staff
  • Profit and loss pressure to minimize replacement of staff and equipment have greatly reduced the number of manufacturing knowledge/experience holders (subject matter experts) in the workforce that could provide the basis for a meaningful knowledge transfer program   

In other words, some of the factors that go into the short-term focus on the balance sheet have eroded availability of the knowledge resources necessary to the hand-off of knowledge and experience.

That same thinning of the knowledge/experience ranks often leaves that “thin gray line” without enough time to do a proper job of keeping up with their operational duties, much less any organized knowledge transfer. The subject matter experts are harried, tired, and in some cases, discouraged.  

It’s a unique (and commendably foresighted) company that will actually provide those subject matter experts with the necessary insulation from the daily damage control to devote any serious, compensated time to an organized knowledge transfer effort.  

The declining number of subject matter experts are recognized by their peers as good at their jobs, which too often is technical firefighting, and very occasionally, technical improvement implementation, customer calming, and corporate reporting. The SMEs literally don’t feel they have any alternative to “go get Fred” when the wheels come off. 

To what extent does corporate culture help or hinder effective knowledge transfer? One contributor is the difficulty in justifying the easy-to-capture (and immediate) direct costs of paying employees’ wages, against the difficult-to-monetize (and much longer-term) benefits to the organization.  

At least we’re starting to recognize and study the problem. Acceptance and effectiveness of well-intentioned knowledge transfer policies varies between companies, levels, and even between “silos” within companies. A 2019 study by Tandemploy1 suggested only one-third of employees surveyed believed “their company promotes the exchange of information and knowledge,” though managers were almost twice as likely to believe that statement than non-managers. Lack of time set aside during the workday was a recurrent reason given for inhibiting the sharing of knowledge, though a considerable majority wanted to share with their colleagues the knowledge they had gained. 

To read this entire article, which appeared in the February 2022 issue of SMT007 Magazine, click here.


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