Engineering the pipeline of talent: how Ichor Systems is circumventing the skills shortage

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One of Scotland’s most successful niche technology companies is taking steps to address the skills shortage in its sector with a fresh approach to recruitment designed to create a steady pipeline of sustainable new talent.
 
Ichor Systems, the Lanarkshire-based electronics and silicon products manufacturer and repairer, employs some of the most highly-skilled engineers in the country and has an industry-wide reputation for consistent excellence.
 
However, because of the eclipse of the once-burgeoning semiconductor industry in Scotland, the age profile of skilled professionals is rising and few new entrants are coming into the micro-electronics business.
 
To combat this trend, said Ichor Systems’ Operations Manager David Law, the company is operating a balanced approach to recruitment featuring apprenticeships, graduate entry and contract employment of experienced personnel.
David Law
David Law
 
“Apprentices are the future of every technically-based business and we place great emphasis on encouraging school and college leavers to consider the semiconductor industry for a rewarding career.
 
“However, it takes time to bring apprentices through and therefore we are adding to the mix with engineering graduates who perhaps are more academically advanced and can be slotted into hands-on roles more quickly.
 
“Of course, there are also times – such as sudden surges in orders – when we need people who can come in, pick up the tools and get to work right away. To fill that requirement, we are always looking for qualified engineers on a full-time or contract basis.”
 
The skills shortage has been particularly taxing for Ichor Systems as it has experienced a long period of sustained growth and entry into new markets, including the wider engineering sector. The company now employs 46 people, mostly highly-qualified and experienced engineers.
 
David Law joined Ichor Systems after a 20-year career in Motorola – the training ground of so many in the semiconductor sector in Scotland – and a senior position with NMI, the trade association for the industry in the UK and Ireland.
 
“I joined Motorola at the peak of its success, and most of the really experienced engineers in the business came out of that same school. What we need now is a new Motorola generation to take the industry forward.”
 
David, who took a business degree at the age of 40 and also gained an MSc in Manufacturing Best Practice, has been instrumental in promoting lean management as well as lean manufacture techniques across the company.
 
“We are trying to break norms,” he said. “There is no set-in-stone way of doing things and we need to use the abilities and skills of our people to continually ask what can be done better.
 
“Engineers are superb at solving problems, especially in a crisis, and we want to harness their ingenuity and energy to create an environment in which everyone can excel and the business can continually improve.”
 
Lean management – a long-term approach which seeks incremental changes to improve efficiency and quality – is designed at Ichor Systems to empower the staff, encourage improvements and make these improvements the new standards.
 
Ichor has changed the structure within operations to having both Technicians and Engineers creating new responsibilities for staff, the work areas have been re-organised and “lessons learned” sessions are held regularly to improve processes.
 
David’s operations model is built on a foundation of safety. It is supported by three pillars – knowledge, quality and measurement; these are reinforced with teamwork, culture and vision/goal alignment; and an apex of customer satisfaction.
 
David said: “The semiconductor industry cyclical and changeable, and Ichor Systems has carved out a niche not by accident, but by focusing on performance and quality. That is how we will secure a stake in the future.”

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