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Apprenticeship to Airplane: Barry’s semiconductor career

7th December 2017
For some of us, a reminder of the long and successful career we have had might be an accolade, award or trophy. For Barry Tomkins at IES, it may have come the time he walked past an ND6200 PECVD (Plasma Enhanced Chemical Vapour Deposition) machine in Jerusalem, Israel, when working with a company called AVX. Barry recognised the signature on the various tested stickers which covered the machine. It was his. The fully operational unit was the same ND6200 which he had built and tested over 30 years ago.

Born in an era, and entering an industry, in which a degree was not seen as the ‘be all and end all’, Barry’s apprenticeship as tool maker served as the perfect preparation for the years to come working in a sector which he describes as “very practical, pragmatic and hands-on”.

Barry Tomkins
A young talent develops in the semiconductor sector

Barry remembers: “There was no pressure whatsoever to take up a university degree. In those days it was my impression that it was rich people who went to university, not people from a council house on an estate like me.”

Armed with the knowledge accrued from his five year apprenticeship – the maximum length funded by today’s government – Barry’s talent was spotted by SPTS (originally Electrotech), a global semiconductors firm with a headquarters in Newport, Wales. Beginning in a role manufacturing components for semi-conductor machines, Barry steadily made his way through the ranks; from building and testing machines, to processing development, becoming a service engineer and ending up in service management. 

A wealth of knowledge in several service areas: Read more about our Engineering Project Management

Hitting the road

Barry’s career at SPTS spanned 28 years, and like several of the experienced engineers at IES, he is no stranger to life on the road. For him, this has meant not just temporary field work, but semi-permanent postings in China, Malaysia, Japan and Taiwan. He says: “It’s been an incredible opportunity not just for me, but also for my family.”

Despite his absence from home, his wife Sue, son Adam and daughter Hannah have been rewarded for their understanding with some very exotic holidays, with Hannah spending six months living in Taiwan; an experience which Barry says “brought her out of her shell”. He names Malaysia as his favourite foreign stomping ground, and is keen to point out that he “loved” all his postings, but concedes that being based overseas isn’t for everybody.

From a 5 year apprenticeship to far flung travels: Barry Tomkins’s career in semiconductors

Barry notes: “I’ve worked with hundreds of engineers, either from the same company as me or other companies. I’ve met them in expat bars and hotel lobbies all around the world. And I think you need to be a certain type of person to tolerate being on the road all the time. You have to like your own company, because sometimes, that’s all the company you have.”

Barry’s battle with ‘Roachy’

For all its adventures, life on the road isn’t always smooth going, as Barry highlights when recalling an incident that involved a particularly large cockroach which found its way into a hotel bathroom during his time in Taiwan.  After trying to encourage the creature to leave, and then pummel it into submission using everything from a toilet plunger to shower hose, Barry eventually believed he’d removed the head of the bug, and that it was permanently out of action.

But, as Barry remembers: “After about an hour, I plucked up the courage to venture back into the toilet to check on Roachy. He was still in the same place, still on his back. But to my amazement, his legs were still going like crazy, trying to make a run for it!” Some extra treatment from the dustbin lid soon put an end to problem. Back at work, his Taiwanese secretary provided a perfect punchline for the story as she told her colleagues in broken English: “Barry has had a fight with his big cock!”

Hear the story of IES assignments from all over the engineering world, in our Case Studies section

A communications leap

Communications have also changed immeasurably since Barry started to work overseas: “When I first started travelling in 1988, I used to call my wife every single day to touch base, tell her about my day, ask her how her day went and whether our children were behaving. Communications today have changed so much that I can call my wife via my mobile phone from almost anywhere in the semiconductor world and have a video chat. We had a chat over breakfast only this week, with me eating cold cut meats and cheese in Delft in The Netherlands, whilst my wife had toast at home.”

While like all of us, he enjoys a laugh, Barry clearly has an analytical mind which allows him to understand the bigger picture in the semi-conductors industry he has worked in. For this reason, he is acutely aware that market forces can dictate fortunes in a sector which he describes as “cyclic”.

From a 5 year apprenticeship to far flung travels: Barry Tomkins’s career in semiconductors

He says of the recent economic pressures: “The global downturn hit people in their pockets so ‘Joe Public’ stopped spending money on TVs, computers, phones and anything with a silicon chip in it. All of the engineers I had reporting to me eventually got laid off until it was just me. And I was running several different projects across different countries.”

Barry joins IES

With no extra support, eventually the situation became intolerable, and Barry left to join Oxford Instruments, the global hi-tech tools provider and research company, where he played a key role in running the test department for 6 years. In this high pressured environment, Barry was responsible for completing testing in short time frames, sometimes involving systems which weren’t fully built yet! From there, Barry joined IES in 2016, where his years of valuable experience, allied with his nature of being a team player, have made him very welcome indeed.

He has enjoyed the opportunity to continue sticking pins in the map with his field work in Europe, and appreciates the social character of the company:  “There is always something going on socially and the company is always raising money for charity. I entered the cake making competition here a couple of weeks ago. Me, making cakes? But I came second!”

Are you interested in joining the IES team? Take a look out our current job vacancies here