With the setting up of its flagship intraocular lens (IOLs) plant in Kulim, Kedah in February 2016, Abbott expects to hire 500 employees by the time it is fully operational in 2020, targeting 99% of Malaysian hires for this drive.

The facility in Kulim will manufacture IOLs for the treatment of cataracts worldwide, and the workforce at the facility comprises teams across the senior management level to the production department, including engineers, finance, supply chain, manufacturing, quality, regulatory and compliance expertise.

In an exclusive interview, Human Resources spoke to the Abbott team on how it will fulfil its recruitment ambition, and its training and development practices.

Excerpts from the interview with Voon Har Peng (V), HR director, Abbott Malaysia; and Aaron Kendrick (K), site director, Abbott’s Facility in Malaysia.

Q. What is the current employee strength at the plant?

K: The Abbott manufacturing plant in Kulim became operational in February 2016, with the grand opening taking place in April 2016. Currently, we have more than 200 employees at the plant whereby 99% of them are Malaysians.

Q. With the aspiration to have 99% Malaysian staff, will you find all skills locally?

V: We do plan to hire locally and are proud that 99% of our employees here are Malaysians. They are highly-skilled experts in the areas of engineering, supply chain management, manufacturing, quality and compliance. We have engaged with the Kedah Industrial Skills and Development Centre and Penang Skills & Development Centre as well as technical colleges and universitiesto recruit new hires.

K: Abbott also offers internship programmes at the plant to create exposure to the manufacturing of high-value medical devices such as intraocular lenses. At the same time, we are working to ensure that its people have the necessary skill sets by sending them for training in Abbott’s manufacturing plants in the Netherlands and Puerto Rico.

Q. What is the time frame for the recruitment drive underway to hire 500 employees? What are the typical roles and skill sets you are recruiting for?

V: We started operations in February 2016 with two manufacturing lines currently installed. When we are fully operational with 16 manufacturing lines by the year 2020, we will have about 500 employees.

The workforce at the Kulim plant comprises teams of people working across divisions from the senior management level to the production department. This includes engineering, finance, supply chain, manufacturing, quality, regulatory and compliance expertise.

These employees have the right skill sets for producing high quality lenses and we constantly look for these skills in our candidates.

Q. What avenues of recruitment have you already pursued, and plan to pursue?

V: We have used the following avenues and tools for our recruitment drive:

  • Employee referral programme
  • Drop-in resumes
  • Recruitment partners and agencies
  • On-campus interviews
  • Career fairs
  • Networking events

Q. Which of these tools have seen the most success so far?

V: The most effective avenue, particularly for the manufacturing specialist position, is the employee referral programme, as well as drop-in resumes.

For executive positions, we have found that working with our recruitment partner, as well as networking, have seen most success. As for roles in the senior management level, we have used recruitment agencies.

Q. What barriers have you faced in the recruitment and what solutions have you devised?

V: The diversity in the manufacturing specialist positions as well as critical positions is currently limited; however we are working closely with the talent acquisition team and relevant agencies to identify the right candidates for appropriate roles at the plant.

Q. How significant is the development of this plant to Abbott’s aspirations in Asia?

K: Abbott has had a presence in Malaysia for 50 years. We have grown our business in Malaysia for many reasons, in large part because of the skilled workforce, especially in medical technology. With the setup of the facility in Malaysia, which has a strategic geographical location in the heart of ASEAN, it would help us to further tap into this market.

Q. Can you share more on your plan to send talent for training in the Netherlands - what criteria do you use for selection and what process do they undergo?

K: Abbott maintains strong training and development standards at all of its IOL plants throughout the world. As this is Abbott’s first manufacturing facility for this product in Malaysia, we focus on ensuring our employees develop specific skills for their roles at the plant.

We have given some of our employees the unique opportunity to train at our manufacturing facilities in Puerto Rico and the Netherlands. This has enabled them to study best practices as well as learn first-hand from experts about the technology used in making these high-precision lenses.

During the initial stage, 50 manufacturing specialists were sent to the Netherlands in five different groups, where all employees have successfully been certified as qualified trainers, which enables them to train and provide support as well as guidance to the other employees at the plant.

With this training, they are able to apply the technical skills and knowledge gleaned to produce high quality lenses in Malaysia, which will be used to improve the vision of people all over the world.We have invested significantly in training and career development to ensure our employees have the skills needed for making the highest quality products in the world.

Q. How many employees do you foresee undergoing this training programme?

K: We have sent 50 manufacturing specialists for training overseas, over the span of two to three months based on their certification.

Q. What results have you seen so far in your recruitment as well as training efforts? 

V: Because our products are placed in a person’s eye and are used to help people all over the world see better, we need the highest quality products available and have put a significant effort and investment into training our employees.

Our training programmes have been successful in producing high quality products, and also in our recruitment and retention efforts.

Because we invest in our employees and their careers, time-to-hire has been on target and retention rates are better than the market. For example, it takes about six months to recruit, hire and train the average employee.

Q. Plant sites usually are dominated by the male workforce. What is Abbott’s take on gender diversity at the site, and what does the current ratio look like?

V: At Abbott, we believe in providing equal opportunities to women and men and gender diversity at the plant is especially important as it brings together varied perspectives which results in better organisational performance. We have many female employees holding key positions in supply chain, HR and quality, and we also provide three months of maternity leave for our employees.