By Chris Henderson
We have an interesting dynamic in the world of semiconductor training that has been in play since the financial crisis in 2008-2009. In order to pull through the especially dire conditions, most companies in the space dramatically reduced their expenses by implementing huge reductions in headcount, travel and training. Now that the industry is bouncing back, one would think that hiring, and therefore the need to train new individuals, would also return. That has not been the case. While it’s true that the industry has resumed hiring, the recruiting strategy and composition of those hired has been different. First, the industry discovered that it could simply avoid replacing many of these positions and still maintain output. The remaining people were just told to do more. They were compelled to oblige, since the alternative was to be out of work. Second, the industry was able tap experienced individuals who were previously let go from other companies. These people did not necessarily need much training to be productive in new positions. Third, companies compensated by increasing automation and outsourcing. The result is that the amount of training has generally been greatly reduced post recession. In some other industries there has been some bounce-back to previous levels, but not in our industry. For example, the attendance at semiconductor-related short courses (1-5 days at a hotel or other training facility) has fallen off dramatically since 2008. Has the need for training gone down, or is there an unseen need that is reducing quality and productivity?
One partial explanation is that there is a shift in the responsibility for training. For example, automation in the factory has pushed more training out of the semiconductor manufacturer and into the hands of the equipment suppliers. As our tools grow more complex, we require more extensive training to operate and maintain them. Moving the fixed cost for in-house training to a supplier’s expenses just sweetens the deal for the chipmaker.
A much more positive shift is toward what we call “performance support.” Performance support is learning at the “point of need.” Rather than attending a conference or a short-course on a topic, then waiting for months to use the information, one accesses a system with the needed information in-hand when the problem occurs. Many engineers and scientists naturally work this way, jumping onto the Internet to look for papers or discussion boards that might address their pressing needs. The problem with this approach is that it is poorly structured and yields inconsistent results. “Googling” can yield some relevant hits, but this information is often of unknown, or even suspect, quality. Further, the search results tend to be a “mile wide and an inch deep.” Some sites like IEEE Xplore provide information that is highly specific and detailed. It is in essence, a “mile deep and an inch wide”. While highly experienced engineers can navigate through this mass of data and potentially find the answers they need, the sheer volume can easily stymie others. They need knowledge that is more structured, focused and at the right level to address their immediate questions. They need a system that is able to adapt to their changing needs while “on the line,” using the tool.
Another important shift we see coming is the rise of the simulator for training in the semiconductor industry. Our tools are now incredibly expensive, so much so that tools like a state-of-the-art immersion lithography system now costs more than a passenger airliner or jet fighter. We use simulators for jet aircraft, and we will likely need simulators for our manufacturing tools so that users can learn in an environment without the fear or danger of damaging the tool and/or expensive wafer lots.
In conclusion, while it may seem like training is on the decline, there are compelling reasons why we need to continue learning, and even step up our efforts in this area. We believe there are new approaches that can lower training costs, reduce risk, and provide engineers with the knowledge they need to be successful on the job. •
CHRIS HENDERSON is President of Semitracks, Inc.