Semiconductor Engineers Losing Control, Adjusting to Economic Downturn and Beyond

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Semiconductor Engineers Losing Control, Adjusting to Economic Downturn and Beyond

By Scott Grant, Accenture

For the past few decades, engineers in the semiconductor industry have tended to have reasonable control of their work. They have received orders from upper management to design a chip, planned this with math calculations and measurements, and set production schedules with carefully thought through and documented chronological estimations. In a fairly straightforward, sequential and logical process, they delivered to semiconductor marketers a solid chip design and quickly moved on to the next project.

Scott Grant, Accenture

But because of the ongoing global economic downturn, many of these engineers are losing control of more of their professional lives; have less authority to determine what work they are assigned to do, how they do it, in what sequence, by when and with whom.

Compounding their pressures, engineers also find themselves unsettled by a highly unstable workforce in which a growing number of colleagues are leaving companies and starting work at new ones. This upheaval disrupts engineering productivity and lowers morale. Evaporation of job security is reality.

Furthermore, these engineers are also struggling with alterations in how their performance gets measured. Performance metrics they used to be evaluated are being shelved for substitutes, making their daily routines less predictable and often more complex.

Given these inter-related problems, many semiconductor companies need to make rapid and fundamental changes in their business operations, strategies and workforce management practices to emerge from this downturn, and for years beyond, as high performers. Once the economy improves, these companies will be entering a market with a different landscape and pulse than the market that existed when the downturn began. They need to figure out how to restart their businesses, regain their footing and connect to a new purpose. They need to address the so-called "soft" aspects of business, such as the engineers who design chips and how they feel.

Details about these issues and problems and suggestions for how to overcome them follow:

Lack of Control

To address the control issues, semiconductor companies need to allow for new sources of control for engineers and other employees. These include some initiatives that Accenture has become aware of recently in dealings with semiconductor clients. For example, one company started weekly, scheduled corporate Town Hall meetings when employees could voice their concerns, ideas and grievances. In a similar move, another company instituted an “open door” policy among all employees. These measures have met with considerable success. As proof, one company's employee satisfaction survey results improved since implementing these changes.

Unstable Workforce

The instability of the workforce within semiconductor companies has been especially severe during this recession. Particularly destabilizing and morale-impacting has been the reality that the most skilled and valued employees-- the ones their employers most want to retain-- are the most likely to be able to find work elsewhere. Corporate knowledge "walks out the door" when an employee leaves. This costs the departed companies dearly in time, money, re-training, and overall corporate productivity and performance.

To infuse more corporate stability, semiconductor companies need to think more creatively about how they can more effectively leverage their human resources professionals to address, for example, employee retention and morale issues. Historically, executives have not worked hard enough to make human resource professionals an integral part of their company's strategic mission. But executives should involve HR because these professionals possess key skills, especially those that address the “softer" needs of employees such as morale problems.

Reducing the sales force turnover and retention rate is one smart way to leverage the talents of human resource professionals. This is because sales departments are notorious for their high turnover rates which cost companies precious time and money to replace. Making these sales people more satisfied with their work and work environments can translate to big overall performance payoffs, and a reduction in costs to replace workers who leave. Accenture's recent client interactions have revealed that substantial and focused investments in stabilizing sales forces have accelerated companies towards high performance.

Changing Performance Metrics

In more stable economic times, semiconductor engineers tended to know how their performance was measured. But the market dive has triggered more re-invention and re-prioritization of performance metrics. For example, design engineers accustomed to being measured yesterday by the numbers of circuit designs, steppings, and errata are today measured by the number of intellectual property libraries reused, external IP suppliers managed, and device configurability. Likewise, yesterday the focus area of the design was more on functional unit blocks, IP cores and sub-system design, whereas today the focus is on design traceability and management of platform lifecycle including non-related engineering tasks to be coordinated across components.

What's paramount now is that these companies decide with precision and clarity their most important performance metrics and invest the most in them. These priority changes need to be communicated throughout the organization, and metrics need to reflect this priority shift. The engineers need to be told what they will be graded on. Boondoggles can't be tolerated in such a competitive industry.

Learn more at Scott Grant is a senior executive and global semiconductor lead with the Accenture Semiconductor Operating Group. He can be reached at

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June 2, 2009