The electronics industry has enjoyed strong growth in 2017 and 2018, but the ability to find and retain skilled workers has remained a critical challenge. It’s been a recurrent theme in the Institute for Supply Management’s monthly factory index, and now the European Union (EU) fears its workforce will be stressed as electronics employment grows.
A shortage of skilled workers is the industry’s top business concern, according to IPC President and CEO John Mitchell. More than two-thirds of IPC companies indicate that a lack of skilled workers is constraining their ability to grow.
“With unemployment in many countries near record lows, market conditions are surely a factor,” he said. “At the same time, electronics manufacturers are requiring ever-greater skillsets as the industry moves to advanced manufacturing.”
Employment in 28 EU member states (EU28) is expected to grow about 0.2 percent annually over the next five years, according to an Oxford Economics report commissioned by IPC. Although that doesn’t look like a drastic increase, workers’ skillsets aren’t keeping pace.
“From a policy perspective,” Mitchell added, “we believe Europe needs to take a strong cross-sectoral policy approach to expanding the skilled workforce and strengthening the electronics value chain.”
The European electronics industry currently employs approximately 2.4 million workers in the EU28, or about 8 percent of overall manufacturing employment. The IPC has pledged to create at least 500,000 workforce training opportunities across the EU over the next five years.
U.S. companies face a similar skilled-worker shortage. However, the EU is facing extra stressors in the form of tariffs and Brexit, which are adding to economic ambiguity.
“Uncertainty for businesses tends to result in reluctance to invest in new staff members,” according to Nicolas Robin, senior director at IPC’s Europe office in Brussels. “It is only rational that companies will not want to make a substantial investment in new employees, unless they have some degree of certainty on their business volume.”
Workers have a lot of mobility within the EU, Robin said, but that doesn’t necessarily address overall electronics employment issues. “One of the greatest achievements of the EU is the free movement of people, which includes movement for employment purposes. Any EU citizen can freely move and work in any EU member state, so hiring the right person is usually much easier than finding the right person.”
Brexit is unlikely to change the free movement of people between the UK and EU, he said, “however, it seems likely at this point that the right of Britons to work in the EU will be curtailed, as will be the right of EU citizens to move and work in Britain.”
One of the main challenges regarding skills, Robin said, is an understanding of how qualifications obtained in one member state translate into the qualifications system of another.
“The EU has worked to create a system allowing the mapping of different qualifications onto a common reference system to resolve this problem,” he said. “This means, for example, that someone receiving a certain qualification in Poland can see at what level of qualification it corresponds to in Germany, so both employees and employers can determine suitability of a candidate.”
Member states are free to set their own curricula and configure their education and training systems as they see fit,” Robin explained. “The EU usually plays the role of funding provider for training initiatives through its various funding schemes and that of data aggregator, drawing the pan-European picture.”
In some countries the government takes a stronger role, he said, collaborating closely with industry and worker groups. In others, initiatives can be more business-driven.
EU employment is below pre-2008-recession levels, according to the Oxford/IPC study. Germany remains the top employer in the European electronics industry. In 2018, the sector employed approximately 813,000 workers, equivalent to just over a third of total employment in the 28 EU states. France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Poland round out the top five.
The report also found:
•The electronics industry is moving eastward. From 2011 to 2018, electronics industry employment in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) grew at an average annual rate of 2.1 percent, more than double the rate in the EU15.
•Employment growth across the EU28 is expected to average 0.2 percent per year over the next five years.
•However, the trend is expected to be far from uniform across Europe with the shift eastward projected to continue with the majority of CEE economies forecast to enjoy above-average employment growth.
•Further research into the UK shows that wage growth in the electronics sector has run well ahead of the economy average and the rest of the manufacturing sector since 2011.
•Such a trend is consistent with the existence of a skills gap which has weakened the negotiating power of firms in the labor market.
Electronics industry associations are getting more involved in workforce advocacy. The IPC initiatives are focused on advanced manufacturing, which relies heavily on robotics and automation. The workers in these cutting-edge facilities tend to have less hands-on interaction with manual tools and greater reliance on computer-managed machinery, according to IPC. This trend is making manufacturing cleaner and safer than in the past, but it is placing new skills requirements on workers.
“The chronic shortage of adequately skilled workers and the changes in skills required are some of the most difficult challenges facing the electronics industry in Europe and worldwide,” concluded IPC’s Mitchell.