Don’t Play Shorthanded

During Economic Doldrums, Can You Keep Your Automation Staff Intact, Upbeat and Sharp?

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By Dan Hebert, Senior Technical Editor

What’s the best way for you and your company to ride out the recession without crippling your ability to compete when business picks up? Machine builders have some answers, as do the system integrators and vendors that serve them. Staffing is a major concern, but other issues also can take precedence.

“During a slowdown we look for cost-cutting or other design improvements in our existing products, and we also get started on offerings we think will be important when business picks up,” says Scott DeVore, Ph.D. and vice president of engineering for Data I/O in Redmond, Wash.

Data I/O’s equipment robotically handles programmable electronic devices like flash memory chips and microcontrollers. They also build in-line programmers that replace tape feeders on assembly lines (Figure 1).

Data's I/O RoadRunner
Figure 1: Data I/O’s RoadRunner is a programmer-tape feeder for circuit board assembly lines that mounts directly onto surface mount technology machine. Staffing in a slowdown is a balancing act for the company, which sees the recession as a great opportunity to pick up good engineers if they have an opening.
Source: DATA I/O

“We also spend more time assisting our salespeople with additional application engineering and product customization to meet the needs of specific customers,” adds DeVore.

Staffing in a slowdown is a balancing act. “We see the recession as a great opportunity to pick up good engineers, but mainly if we have an opening. We aren’t looking to increase staff unless we can experience a near-term increase in revenue,” concludes DeVore.

Like DeVore and Data I/O, many in the industry are cautious when it comes to staffing in a slowdown.

Staffing in a Slowdown

The economy has slowed significantly, but it’s no time to abandon basic business principles about staffing. “As a mid-size system integrator with 26 employees, we’re very deliberate about adding staff,” relates Phil Murray, principal at FeedForward in Atlanta. “We hire for the long term and not for short-term project demands. Our 2009 hiring does not differ from any other time. We hire when our backlog demands it. The exception might be if a known, talented I&C person became available. In that case, we most likely would create a spot in the company.”

The key is maintaining a level of work to keep the employees actively employed, emphasizes Murray. “To that end, we recently added sales staff,” he says. “If the workload does slow down, we typically assign more people to a project and split the work among more participants. We will also do more training—both in-house and external. A key for us is to keep our good people, even during economic slowdowns.”

Some firms are adding staff. “We added an engineer a few months ago and can always add more staff,” says Dr. George Cheng, CEO of software developer CyboSoft. “Our requirements for new staff members are very high, so we tend to add them when we find them. We also see this as a good time to start major R&D projects that require focused efforts.”

Micro Component Technology in Northboro, Mass., makes strip test handlers and markers used in the back end of the semiconductor manufacturing process. “We are not planning to hire during this difficult period, but we are keeping all of our development people,” relates Dick Sidell, vice president and chief technical officer for MCT. “We also are keeping all of our automation and engineering personnel and as many applications/service people as we can.”

Sidell notes it’s critical to keep the right people during a slowdown. Core staff members are extremely valuable and notoriously hard to find, so keeping them onboard is crucial.

Keep the Core

During difficult times, a major concern for Machine Builder Nation is maintaining critical core staff. After going through many years when talent was scarce and work was plentiful, machine builders are wary of cutting staff now, only to find themselves short of talent when the upturn emerges.

Some cutbacks might be inevitable during a recession, but maintaining the core makes it easier to expand when demand picks up. “Even in a slowdown, we need to maintain the right people necessary for us to grow in the future,” says Doug Imes, electrical engineering manager with Hartness International in Greenville, S.C. Hartness makes casepackers, robotic palletizers, lane dividers, accumulators, conveyors, and video-based error-recorders.

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