The technicians’ toolbox is bigger than ever
In this throw away age there has been a rapid decline in people learning electronics as a vocation. The jobs are not as abundant as they once were and the wages are less than competitive with other vocations. So why do people still want to pursue electronics as a career?
It’s a hobby and a love of technology stuff.
I did my initial training in the RAAF and it was very good training, thousands of hours, no exaggeration. I used the latest and the best in test equipment and worked on systems that if they went down, would cost lives and $$$. That training is mostly all changed now. Who has the time to train systems techs to a conditioned response level of awareness, let alone all the money needed for that training. SURAD Surveillance Radar for example is just so complex, and all the old techs who trained and graduated on that left the Airforce to do other things, often not related to electronics. All that training wasn”t wasted but there was no firm mechanism to keep the trained techs, so the RAAF school of radio closed because it cost too much money to keep it running. The answer for the Department of Defence has been to outsource most of the servicing to non-government organisations NGO. It’s not so peculiar then to find that the NGO’s often have a high complement of service trained techs from some decades earlier.
There is scope for good techs to gain moderately paying jobs for these NGO but the companies are demanding of their techs and want the best qualified personnel. This is big expensive cutting edge equipment and not all techs can get a look in at this. Ask yourself how good you are at the trade and how committed you are to learn. Are you willing to buy a good textbook and learn how to do all of the exercises in it? Do you keep neat notes in a journal? Do you buy some components and practice building and measuring circuits? Learning a language or learning electronics, both take time and you need to be motivated and have a keen interest.
And what about other areas of the trade?
- Electronic gymnasium equipment such as $15,000 treadmills. These are not throw away equipment. Electromechanical.
- Biomedical equipment, blood gas analysers, spectrophotometry, micro titre flow sensors
- Xray equipment
- Dental equipment
- Optometry equipment
- Laser levelling equipment
- Weigh stations/bridges and retail electronic scales calibration
- Electronic security equipment
- Television station and broadcast technicians
- Police and government agencies surveillance, radar and radio
- Defence service (high demand for technical trainees)
- Telecommunication providers
- Home audio and video setups
- Solar inverter technology and battery charging stations
- Civil aviation techs, control tower and LAME certified for aircraft electronics
- Diesel fuel injection calibration
- High end stage audio equipment and amplifiers
- Audio mixing and cables
- Electronic musical instruments
- Industrial electronics – locomotive and passenger train technologies
I have addressed a few of the vast areas of electronics above. Just how big must the electronics technicians’ toolbox be to include the knowledge to service all this gear? I started this story with “in this throwaway age” but is it really that? Home electronics equipment even…. what about an Apple iMac Retina computer costing $3,500, is it throwaway, you know it is not. Even 2011 iMacs are still very popular and in high demand with recycled parts and rebuilt power supplies and fans etc.
The industry is short of good techs now. I do not mean the ones who attended TAFE and scraped through with 50% and had no interest in what they were learning…. I mean the ‘nerds’, the ones who actually know how circuits and stuff work. The ones who can read a circuit schematic diagram and know why there is a PNP transistor controlling the base of an NPN device. The ones who understand thermal runaway and negative feedback circuits.
Just where technical training is heading is a bit of a mystery. In the USA there are many colleges, all with different training programs and subjects but most have one thing in common, a high level of understanding circuits and a large emphasis on software simulation and good textbooks. In England, the City and Guilds exams in electronics for college level are quite thorough also, especially in the areas of radio communication. In Australia, the national curriculum has tightly bound a handful of subjects together to be taught at vocational level. Sounds great, but is it? Does it suit all students? Is it addressing the level of knowledge a good electronics tech needs in his toolbox today? The number of students studying electronics is in decline and the skills shortage is being filled with overseas trained people in some cases. In the late 1980’s TAFE NSW had thousands of students (1) studying electronics. In 2016, it’s a few hundred. Exactly what that means can serve up different answers depending on which perspective one views the data. An optimistic view is that the industry is ready for a boom because not enough students have been trained in recent years. In contrast to that view would be that people are gaining qualifications on the job perhaps, at a level just right to serve the purpose and be productive to the business in which they are employed, therefore negating the need for TAFE training. Sadly, I can see that when the new airport is built at Badgerys Creek and the proposed silicon valley style technology park is in place, there will be a major skills shortage of techs who can actually do stuff. Just at the Airport, the radio systems and antenna systems, all the duplexers, diplexers, cavity filters etc… Who trains this stuff today? In Australia, nobody. Getting someone who knows how this stuff works and to set it up is difficult now. Hence, overseas contract workers will be required on an ongoing basis.
(1) The old engineering certificate course at that time was around 2000 hours of study and more intense than the current course. It was not an apprenticed course.
The Road Ahead
The Googles of the new world need technically savvy people. Workers who can think and work as part of a team or autonomously. Domestic radio receivers and Flat screen TVs are disposable products. Just about everything else in industry is not. Even excavators (the big earth diggers) have many small computer systems on board with slew sensors to limit tilt and act as safety for the operator. Waratah and Tangara trains have sophisticated computer managed balanced braking systems which need calibration and adjustment. Let’s hope that smart and well trained, TAFE trained to a high level, techs are doing the work on some of this infrastructure and public transport.
The road ahead is open to many advancements in smartness. We need to break away from the old ‘just good enough’ attitude and smarten up our courses and our training and then Australia, or NSW anyway, will be technically superior in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). That middle ground, from basic wiring (mechanics) techs to advanced techs of the future, just below University level and focussing on a hands on approach to the work. Let’s match that future technology park now, let’s up the training and make authoritative techs who can make decisions which count. Electronics as a vocation is not dead, far from it. It’s been a busy ride for the good techs with good qualifications and knowledge, and a rough ride for those who can barely use a multimeter to measure current and voltage.
The quality and importance of training
City and Guilds (C&G) in the UK operates as an examination board offering a large number of qualifications mapped onto the British National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Sounds similar to the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) … well it should, the AQF was borrowed from the UK without the same assessment criteria which has made C&G famous around the globe. The City and Guilds model works very well, setting the guidelines for assessment outcomes. They publish Qualification handbooks for each vocational qualification. C&G is a non-profit organisation, all income being used to further improve courses and course criteria. Here is a link for Electronics in pdf format.
Note in the above chart the Assessment … externally set, externally verified. Assignments are exams.
Similar to Australian Unit of Competency details but more clear and succinct.
The learning outcomes are boldly stated with verbs, understand, explain, represent. The assessment criteria directly accompanies each learning outcome.
And as to the exams…..they call them assignments….. clearly laid out examples of what will be required by the student:
Note for example pp 39 to 41 The student will attend a test centre at a nominated time and construct to BS308 (AS1100) guidelines the orthographic views of an isometric image. I note this is Technician Certificate Level 2 exam guidelines. Could students from Australian RTOs pass this exam? The fact is that by having externally set and externally verified exams, every graduate will have passed the exams to the same standard, so this ensures that all RTOs would teach to the correct standard.
In the same document, pp 69 – 72 the construction on wiring board of a power supply. 6 hours are allowed and the marking criteria is given. This is really ensuring that students know what they are doing.
It is this quality of training and assessment that produces good tradespeople who CAN get good jobs or start businesses. And it is this which the Electronics Technician needs in his toolbox above all else, … knowledge and skill.
Good techs are certainly highly employable and always will be.
Will Australia adopt a C&G approach to exams in vocational qualifications? Food for thought. Is there a direct correlation between course quality and student numbers? RTOs need to be innovative with the whole teaching process from course design through teaching and to standardised verifiable assessments.
GM 2016, April 4