Skills for the North West

Damien Gallagher, Executive Director of Engineering at the Seagate Technology facility in Derry, explains that a steady skills stream is a vital driver of the businesses growth.

The Seagate Springtown site in the heart of Derry, established in 1993, is responsible for supplying around 25 per cent of the global demand for read-write heads for hard drives. In doing so Seagate spends around £19 million annually in the Northern Ireland economy, generates £53 million in wages and is responsible for 2.4 per cent of Northern Ireland’s manufacturing output.

Gallagher points to three successful ingredients in the company’s success: 
A world class facility in Derry of 475,000 sq.ft, (of which 87,000 sq.ft is Class 5 cleanroom space); world class equipment, in which the company annually invests between $50 to $100 million; and finally world class people, made up of a range of disciplines, expertise and skillsets.

The company is committed to developing its future talent pipeline, Gallagher explains: “There is no point having the finest facility and the best equipment in the world if we don’t have the people with the right skillset to leverage that. What we try and do is create a complete chain, an interconnected network of skills from school engagement, right through to world leading PHDs and continuous learning for staff.”

Currently the company employ around 1,350 permanent staff on its Derry site and boast a high concentration of graduates, made up of 27 per cent degree level, 6 per cent masters level and 8 per cent PhD level.

“Our skills requirement has evolved as our factory has evolved. Initially our site charter was high volume manufacturing, essentially our job was to replicate the designs taking place in our sister site in Minneapolis,” explains Gallagher.

“2009 was a significant milestone for operations here in Derry when the site took on product research and development responsibility, altering the skillset which we were required to access. That skillset is still evolving through next generation technology development which was adopted in 2014, work on technology that won’t come into products until the end of the decade. These industry 4.0 technologies will require new competencies for future success.”

The need for greater investment in the North West’s skill stream can be evidenced in the company’s latest recruitment round. Of the 25 PhD’s sought to aid expansion, just two of the recruits came from the UK and Ireland, while the other 23 were made up from the likes of China, India and other European Union countries.

Developing those skills is a key priority for the company, adds Gallagher. Internal employee development represents an annual investment of $1 million per annum including advanced technical training, vocational qualifications and management and leadership programmes.

The company also operate a number of programmes with Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB) including ANSIN, a co-funded collaborative research lab, representing an €11 million investment. It provided £8.1 million to the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT), specifically established to address skills shortage in the data storage and photonics industries and aiming to establish 50 PhDs over five years between Queens and the University of Glasgow. Finally a collaboration with QUB’s physics department created the MSc Materials Science distance learning qualification for existing engineers and a syllabus informed by Seagate’s future needs.

Brexit

In terms of Brexit, Gallagher says that the company is very much operating on a “business as usual” basis until the scenario changes. However, he is aware that any disruption to the over 200 staff who travel across the border daily and potential work permit applications for their international employees, would cause problems for the company.

As would any disruption or tariffs to the current sourcing of around 40 per cent of the companies raw materials coming from Europe. “As well as the financial element, we recognise that a lot of our raw materials are not something we could just switch vendor for. We go through an exhaustive process to qualify those materials for our process. Some of those materials won’t simply be available in the UK and additional tariffs would cause disruption.”

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