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Focus on Business

Susan Mucha

The wrong attitude can send customers shopping for a new EMS provider.

I frequently say program management is the most difficult job in the electronics manufacturing services (EMS) industry. Program managers play a dual role of their customers’ champions within their organization and their employer’s enforcer to ensure each account hits its revenue and profit targets. I see great similarities between PMs and airline gate agents, for whom getting customers where they need to go is often impeded by forces outside an agent’s control.

If we use that gate agent analogy to describe the program manager’s dilemma in today’s chaotic materials situation, the plane is running four hours late; the passengers who were loaded an hour ago now need to be told the crew needs to deplane because they’ve exceeded their legal flight time limits, and there are no alternate flights because a bad storm has shut down the entire East Coast. The state of imbalance between supply and demand in today’s materials market is so bad, the issue isn’t whether customers will be disappointed but how badly they will be disappointed. Program managers are the point people in delivering that bad news.

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Sue Mucha

It’s time to consider more in-person visits.

Are we in the post-Covid world yet? That simple question will ignite both outrage and debate in many parts of the world. Yet in other places people are ripping off their masks and starting to resume normal life. This disconnect has significant implications for electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies and their marketing strategies. It also has implications for people not wishing to transition from temporary work-at-home settings.

I live in Texas, and our governor has made mask mandates illegal, so I have had a preview of the psychological changes that hit when people who have been masking up and hunkering down for over a year suddenly don’t have to do that anymore. I’m fully vaccinated and am choosing not to wear a mask. Once the mask mandate was lifted, stores switched to encouraging those not vaccinated to continue to wear masks, but that choice is left to patrons. The first week I went shopping without a mask, I was in the minority. Three weeks later, the aisles are full of maskless people. Even store employees are ripping off their masks. In short, attitudes on masking shift quickly once unmasking starts and case numbers continue to drop.

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Susan Mucha

EMS companies are undertaking a range of measures to appeal to new recruits.

Material constraints combined with unanticipated spikes in demand and shortages in transportation capacity apparently aren’t enough of an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) management challenge for 2021. Labor shortages are also an issue, despite unemployment numbers double what they were pre-Covid. The reasons are complex. While government stimulus payments and more generous unemployment insurance may be incentivizing some to stay home, other factors such as lack of childcare resources or health concerns are also at play. The availability of more remote work options and relocation of previously available workforce due to Covid restriction adaptations are also factors.

In a constrained labor market, the manufacturing sector often finds it hard to recruit. Several decades ago, everyone had friends and family who worked in factories and spoke of the benefits of that career choice. The service economy and offshoring changed that. Today, many potential employees do not even consider manufacturing sector jobs.

How can these trends be changed? I’ve interviewed executives at Firstronic and SigmaTron International to discuss what works for them. I also interviewed a recent “new to manufacturing” hire at Firstronic to add perspective on what makes factory work appealing.

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Susan Mucha

It’s a drink from an educational firehose, but the lessons will pay off.

Many will disagree with this column’s title this month, especially supply-chain professionals working 24/7 to address a market with varying material constraints, continual logistics challenges and unforecasted demand spikes. That said, over the past few years the electronics manufacturing (EMS) industry has had a changing of the guard. While some replacements are veterans of the last round of market constraints, most haven’t seen the perfect storm that 2021 represents. The lessons learned this year will create invaluable experience for this next generation of leadership. Here are a few examples:

Information technology. Over the past decade, even small EMS companies have upgraded their IT capabilities to provide real-time visibility into most of their critical metrics. However, while an exception-based real-time system is wonderful in situations where exceptions happen in relatively low volumes, it creates information overload when it is identifying hundreds of exceptions in a month. The current market challenges are driving management teams to analyze what data they need to prioritize and how that data can be best formatted to help them stay ahead of shortages or capacity constraints. This will broaden the use of time-saving apps and create management teams with a better understanding of systems strategy strengths and weaknesses.

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Susan Mucha

Traditional materials such as whitepapers and articles are solid lead generators.

What a difference a year makes. As I write this, three Covid-19 vaccines are approved and are in distribution to healthcare workers and nursing homes. By the time this is printed, it’s likely the next tier of eligible recipients will be able to get a shot at a pharmacy or their doctor. The speed of development, manufacturing, testing and deployment is unparalleled. The teams involved in this have set the stage for a return to normalcy. Yet it is likely Covid-19 will have a global impact on business travel and selling processes for most of 2021, because it will take time for herd immunity to develop. So, what should sales and marketing teams in the electronics manufacturing services (EMS) industry expect as we transition back to normal?

The need for speed. OEMs discovered some EMS companies could cut new product introduction (NPI) time significantly during 2020. The bar will likely stay raised, both because it provides competitive advantage and because unanticipated variations in demand require it. Companies able to exploit their success in this area will likely see additional new business.

Demand will be more variable than usual. While parts of the economy have been almost normal for months, some regions experienced shutdowns. There is also pent-up demand for products such as appliances that experienced shortages in 2020. Consumer lifestyles changed in 2020 and are likely to impact buying patterns in 2021. A telecommunications technology shift is in play with 5G, and potentially political incentives for alternative energy products. From a sales perspective that translates to new opportunities in markets that may not have been as attractive in prior years.

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Susan Mucha

Why you should consider a certification program.

When I look back on my career and consider the key ingredient to my success, I’d say whenever opportunity knocked, I had the right skill set to walk through the door. I was fortunate that my first electronics manufacturing services (EMS) employer had both a tuition refund program that paid for my master’s degree in management and an internal management training program. That started me on a path of continuous learning that included multiple certification programs and other training programs. And, as advancement opportunities came up, I had the right qualifications and a results-focused track record.

Company-sponsored educational resources are more limited today. That said, technology has made it possible and convenient to engage in focused continuous learning opportunities. IPC’s Certified Electronics Program Manager (CEPM) training and certification program is a good example. What once required multiple trips to training locations and a solid week of classroom time can now be done via computer either in live sessions or through reviews of class recordings. The program was redesigned to an online format in 2017 and now is a six-week program with two two-hour classes per week, providing overviews of program management, sales, cost accounting, materials management, contracts, production planning, quality and leadership. Students are assigned to teams that complete a case study each week related to the concepts presented. A variety of online exercises reinforce key concepts. The goal is to ensure participants are provided a common framework of knowledge and the opportunity to interact with peers to discuss best practices. Information on the program and upcoming dates is available here: https://training.ipc.org/product/certified-electronics-program-manager-cepm-program.

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