When It Comes to Auditors, is Our Luck about to Run Out?

December 6, 2022, 9:50 pm Peter Bigelow

The needed combination of experience and willingness to travel is hampering certification programs.

In just about every industry, be it design, make, service, support or advisory, the most-heard complaint – and frequent challenge – is finding people. And while Barbara Streisand beautifully sang how “people who need people are the luckiest people,” I think most in business would call themselves anything but lucky. Certainly, they are at a point where they too often are counting on luck to fill open positions.

Much has been written about the need for talent in our industry. Like most industries, we face a need to replace an aging workforce. In addition, there is momentum to bring design and manufacturing jobs from elsewhere in the world to North America. Together, the challenge to find, hire and train new talent is a tall one, made tougher by lack of aspiration of younger talent to enter manufacturing or commit their time to learn a specific industry or technology. That said, as bad as it may seem navigating staffing challenges we have in our industry, it could be worse.

Think of the businesses and jobs that rely primarily on the “gray hair” workforce and what they may soon face – or are already. Take quality auditors, for instance, specifically those who audit for ISO/AS/QS registrars. Over the nearly 30 years that ISO has been the universally required quality system, almost all the auditors I have encountered had long careers in quality management, then started new careers as ISO auditors. The benefit this provides both registrar and client is a skilled staff experienced in business and who understand the day-to-day challenges of delivering a product or service. It makes a difference when those auditing a quality system standard have both the theoretical knowledge of what that system requires as well as the practical experience to know what is truly doable.

After a recent annual surveillance audit, as the auditor was packing to leave, he commented that the number of AS9100 auditors is not enough to handle the demand. When asked if that was the case for just his registrar, the response was: “It’s the same for all registrars. Many of us are getting old or no longer want to travel.” These comments were certainly understandable based on the relative age and experience of most auditors, but the “what if” implications are concerning.

I am certain younger people are entering the registrar audit world, and some may be well qualified both in quality systems and real-world experience. All industries, however, whether manufacturing or service, are looking to fill internal positions in quality control and assurance. Will these workers leave in-demand positions to become ISO/AS/QS auditors? And after several years of a pandemic, how many will want to return to the heavy travel that auditing typically requires?

Possibly the biggest “what if” is, can quality systems that require external audits be performed on an annual basis survive without qualified auditors, or will they collapse due to a lack of talent to support the audit requirements? Will a new breed of auditor who has little shop-floor experience become the next generation of auditors, and if so, how will they react when auditing highly entrepreneurial businesses with minimal human or financial resources but lots of creativity? And what will industry do if they can no longer rely on quality systems that are externally certified?

Businesses, such as quality system registrars, that rely on seasoned, albeit aging, employees to perform tasks where experience as well as subject knowledge has been of value will need to pivot one way or another. Technologies such as Zoom, etc., may alleviate some of the challenges, especially where travel is a concern, but will not replace people walking into an office or onto the shop floor. And the next generation of auditors may need to be conceived based on the essential skills needed and experience level available.

Registrars must keep an eye on the available talent pool and how that talent is deployed. Once requirements such as periodic recertifications can no longer be handled within the timeline listed on the registration certificate, industry will indeed be looking for alternatives.

Hopefully, as registrars consider any such pivot or adjustment, the core concept of certified registration programs, be they for quality, security or any other process deemed essential and best monitored by a system of external eyes, will be reviewed and streamlined to eliminate, or at least reduce, duplication and frequency of audit. All industries could benefit from certification programs that are fewer in number but more universally accepted by customers across varying industries and technologies.

Which all goes back to people. When human resources becomes a bottleneck, in addition to seeking talent, maybe the process itself needs to be looked at. Reduction of duplication, applying standardization where feasible, and ensuring the workers you have are treated well so they stay with you all need to be considered. As the circuit board industry tackles these HR-centric challenges, be aware we are not alone!

Peter Bigelow is President / CEO of IMI... Email is: pbigelow@imipcb.com

About IMI Inc.

Founded in 1971, IMI is a leading provider of commercial and military, technologically-advanced printed circuit boards with significant expertise in fabricating on all types of PTFE/Duroid, polyimide, and more traditional FR-4 based laminates as well as mixed construction applications. Based in Haverhill, Massachusetts, IMI is MIL certified, ITAR registered as well as AS9100/ ISO9001 registered and focuses on leading Aerospace, Military, Medical, RF/Microwave and Industrial electronics OEMs and contract manufacturers from its Haverhill facility. For more information, visit www.imipcb.com.