The Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) recently recommended building Singapore’s digital capabilities as one of the 7 strategies to build a value-creating open and connected economy, where Singaporeans have a multitude of opportunities, sustainable wage growth and meaningful careers.
Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Future Economy Chan Chun Sing, who is also Labour Chief, says “If we can see data as a new resource compared to the traditional resources like water, energy, oil and so forth – then we may be able to create new competitive advantages for Singapore, leverage data to create new businesses and new jobs for Singaporeans.”
Engineering is an industry which is heavily reliant on data and digital technology, so how do engineering companies here make use of digitalisation to create products and jobs of the future?
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How Much Do We Know About Engineering?
Well, unless you’re an engineering student, or work in engineering, not very much.
Personally, I know nuts about it, other than that it involves lots of science and mathematics – both banes of my existence.
Which is why it was an eye-opener when I visited Micron, an American engineering MNC with a focus on semiconductor production, with the United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries (UWEEI).
Located at 1 North Coast Drive, the sprawling premises I went to is one of the MNC’s four sites in Singapore, and was featured in the news last September for the expansion of its 3D NAND flash memory fabrication facility, Fab 10, with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as the opening ceremony’s guest-of-honour.
Another interesting figure that stood out was the number of Singapore employees they have – approximately 7,500, representing around 25% of the company’s global staff strength.
During a time where jobs were scarce, Micron stated that “around 500 new jobs will be created with the new expanded fab in place”.
Perhaps one of the reasons for its apparent brazenness in spite of the bleak labour market is because the global demand for SSDs is on the rise, and it’s no surprise, given that SSDs are basically the ‘brains’ of all the tech gadgets that we love and drool over.
But being in the right industry at the right time isn’t the only key to surviving, so I decided to play detective, and find out their secret sauce to not only staying afloat, but also thriving in a time of disruption.
Creating Their Own Sunrise (Industry)
Arriving at one of the Micron facilities on an early Thursday morning, we were greeted brightly by a handful of Micron staff – a mix of team members from the Human Resources and Engineering departments.
The agenda was simple enough – a tour of the premises, followed by a Q&A session with a few engineers at Micron.
Boon Bee Peh from Human Resources was our guide for the day, and she chirpily brought us around the facility, peppering each pause in our tour with fun facts of the company, and readily answering our questions as we went along.
Being in the business of memory chip manufacturing, Boon Bee shares that they have “grown alongside the needs of the present day consumer”, citing the example of the vast difference in memory capacity of the iPhone 4, the largest of which was 32GB, to the 256GB that the iPhone 7 can store.
And it’s not just producing to cater to the needs of consumers – it’s the creation of newer, greater possibilities for them as well.
Thus, what that means is that they will need to disrupt, not only their competitors but themselves as well. And instead of nestling comfortably in an industry well-prepped for the near future, they have the challenge to create their own sunrise.
But that’s easier said than done.
Ideas can run dry, and employees can get burnt out – so what is Micron doing to keep their innovations fresh, and workers enthusiastic?
Simple – by combining the stability of an MNC with the tenacity and passion of a startup.
Learning As A Prerequisite
To find out more about how that strategy actually plays out, especially in an MNC handling very complex processes, we were ushered into a meeting room and got acquainted with our interviewees for the day – Vignesh Kumar (Process Technician), Roger Lim (Process Development Manager) and Kegan Ang (Data Analyst).
As introductions went around the table, I couldn’t help but notice everyone’s diverse backgrounds – Vignesh Kumar was previously from the aviation industry, Kegan Ang is a fresh university graduate with a degree in statistics, and Roger Lim had progressed, over his years in Micron, from being a technician to a dry etch manager.
Micron draws inspiration from startup culture and hires graduates from various disciplines to offer unique angles to solving problems.
To get the ball rolling, we started off by asking them about their views on the hot topics of the past year – job security and disruption.
The semiconductor industry is no doubt a sunrise industry, but complacency will bring about the downfall of an individual even in the most advantageous position – so how does Micron staff keep relevant?
“We need to evolve and keep up (with trends), and that’s already what Micron is doing,” said Kegan.
Added Zerlinda Tan, from HR Learning & Development, our moderator for the interview, “We strive to keep knowledge relevant, so as to keep our employees relevant. They are constantly learning. Learning is a continuous process for our employees. Learning is a prerequisite for our employees.”
The spirit of learning is imbued into employees from their very first day at work, at their compulsory new hire training.
Being the newcomer among the trio, having only joined in mid-2016, Kegan explains that their training has fresh hires sit together for a couple of weeks to learn about the semiconductor industry, and also to get familiar with their colleagues.
According to UWEEI, the union for Micron staff, Micron has also worked closely with NTUC via Electronics and Precision and Machinery Engineering Cluster’s Place-and-Train programmes, Young Engineers Leadership Programme (YELP), WSQ for Wafer Fabrication and WSQ for Assembly and Testing.
But it doesn’t end there – the company also organises Learning Events, some of which include in-house training programs.
In fact, Micron even helps to pay for fees incurred when employees are taking up courses to further their expertise.
Two employees who have benefitted from these programs are Vignesh and Roger.
A Temasek Polytechnic graduate who earned a diploma in engineering, Vignesh Kumar states that his interest in the field began mainly because he “was always good in math and physics”.
Upon graduation, he took the route less academic, and dove straight into his first job as a cargo coordinator at SATS, which he recalls, was great at teaching him important work skills like leadership and problem solving.
But that’s not the only qualification he has under his belt – he has also recently earned a Specialist Diploma in wafer and semiconductor studies. And the best part of that? It was entirely paid for by Micron.
Under the Earn and Learn Programme, he got the best of both worlds – getting hands-on experience from his job, and also learning about the theories behind them in the course.
His story was recently featured in a blogpost by Labour MP Melvin Yong, who is also the Executive Secretary of United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries (UWEEI), who highlighted how “his background in the aviation industry, coupled with knowledge gained from the part-time degree, helps value-add to his role as a Process Technician. This aptly demonstrates the importance of possessing cross-industry skills to be future-ready at the individual level”.
One hungry for knowledge, he is currently a part-time Engineering undergraduate in Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
As for Roger Lim, his interest in engineering developed from a young age.
He recalls, “As a naturally curious individual, I have always been interested in science, and was excited about all types of new things! I would even try to open up a watch so that I could see how it worked”.
His voice bubbled with excitement, giving away the unceasing passion he has for understanding the unknown.
In 1998, Roger joined Micron and worked there for 2.5 years, before leaving to study engineering full-time at university.
After graduation in 2003, the fresh graduate noticed that Micron had vacancies, did a ‘homecoming’ of sorts, and has been working there ever since.
His 13-going-on-14 years in the company did not make him complacent, though. In fact, he has actually been tirelessly re- and up-skilling himself, taking on relevant courses while fulfilling his duties as a manager.
“We Have So Many Problems, But It’s A Good Thing!”
Then comes the question – with 3,400-strong employees in the 1 North Coast Drive facility itself, how is information and knowledge shared across the board?
That’s where the strong company culture of mutual sharing comes in.
From their first day at Micron, employees are encouraged to build relationships across departments, and even across the world, so as to learn from each other’s expertise and find “the next new idea”.
Team meetings are also platforms for employees to share their ideas and insights. Occasionally, sharing sessions from various sectors are conducted for the whole facility so that all are well aware of what everyone else is working on and even tackle tricky issues together.
Engineering – A ‘Boring’ Job No More
My time at Micron soon came to an end, and I’ll be honest – I left wishing that I studied harder in my Mathematics and Science!
Regardless, the short visit not only shattered misconceptions I had about the industry, but it also gave me insights on how a large MNC like Micron adopts and adapts characteristics of (usually small in scale) startups, and imbues them into their working culture to drive innovation and ideation.
Just like their company, Micron employees have also become ‘mini startups’ of their own, constantly disrupting old methods and finding new ones through learning, experimentation and sharing with peers.
Micron is taking on the future with the stability of an MNC and the innovation culture of a startup, and it’s definitely working.
The big question is, how do we make this future-ready mindset more pervasive nationwide?
The Labour Movement is working closely with tripartite partners (i.e. the government and businesses) to help working people into future jobs, such as those in sunrise industries like engineering.