By David Lammers
I spent a morning recently at a community college near the GlobalFoundries fab in upstate New York, and learned a lot about the challenges facing students and educators.
Fred Strnisa, who teaches semiconductor manufacturing technology (SMT) at the Hudson Valley Community College’s Malta campus, has a mix of students. Of the 13 people in the SMT sequence, only two are recent high school graduates, and four are over 40.
“A lot of the people who come here are in their late 20s and 30s,” said Strnisa. “They are trying to reinvent themselves,” hoping to move on to what they believe will be better careers as operators and technicians at the Malta fab, or at one of the General Electric facilities in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy- area.
With fellow SMT teacher Abe Michelin, Strnisa says his job “is to make my students valuable to employers in the area,” including GlobalFoundries, GE, and the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) and Sematech research complex in Albany, 20 miles to the south. He plans to increase the number of students in the two-year sequence, providing funding materializes.
The coursework is demanding, including hands-on labs aimed at making working diodes. And almost all of the students have jobs. “One student is the manager at the Advanced Auto Parts store here,” Strnisa said, concerned that some his students might have too much on their young shoulders.
Brett Miller stopped by Strnisa’s lab, and volunteered that of the original 15 who started the two-year SMT sequence with him, only six made it through. “Nine of them couldn’t handle it. Usually it is the older students who take it more seriously,” said Miller, who was laid off after a long stint at a book marketing company in the area. He graduated from the SMT program last May, and is hoping to get a job at GlobalFoundries.
“The economy totally tanked here during the downturn, but I saw more high tech companies coming to the area, so I decided to reeducate myself with the SMT program,” he said, estimating that he spent 70-75 hours a week at the classes or studying on his own. He could do that because he qualified for unemployment insurance and supplemental “599B” money to support his retraining effort.
GlobalFoundries has about 1,300 people on board now, and will hire about 300 more by the end of this year when volume production begins. “I’ve been waiting to be hired, to hear back from the hiring manager,” Miller said. “Eventually, I’d like to be in management, but a technician’s job would be a great start.”
Miller said the labs in the SMT program helped him to understand the chip-making process. “When a lab goes wrong, we learn how to fix it,” Miller said, exuding enthusiasm.
Penny Hill, an associate dean at the college’s Tec-Smart program (Training and Education Center for Semiconductor Manufacturing and Alternative and Renewable Technologies), said the SMT program “is pretty difficult for young kids right out of high school. The requirements are challenging, and oftentimes at their ages they aren’t quite sure what they want to do. And then there often are money issues,” she said.
The HVCC’s Tec-Smart program, located not far from the Malta fab, opened in January 2010. It is a gorgeous place, with a church-like peaked ceiling and huge windows, set amidst a nearly pristine forest. Wind turbines and two large solar panels are outside. Geothermal, HVAC, and solar energy programs complement the SMT sequence, partly supported by a Department of Energy grant.
On a sunny and cool spring morning, it seemed like an idyllic place to be. However, there are several challenges facing the school’s industrial technology programs, said Andrew Matonak, president of the Hudson Valley Community College, based in Troy, N.Y. It costs at least 50 percent more to educate a student in industrial skills or health sciences, compared with a liberal arts program. He estimates a $19,000 cost for an industrial sequence, such as one aimed at teaching students the electrical and mechanical skills needed to repair sophisticated machinery. That falls far short of $3,400 in tuition.
Compared with three years ago, New York state funding is 21 percent less. “The state keeps pushing the funding requirements down to the counties, but these health sciences and industrial technology programs are costing more.” The equipment in the SMT lab costs about $500,000, Strnisa estimated, and adding more students requires buying more workstations and tools.
Phil White, dean of the schools of business and engineering & technical technologies, adds that people are still getting to know what GlobalFoundries is all about, and vice versa. The curriculum in the SMT program is being adjusted, based on discussions with GlobalFoundries people.
Students, Matonak and White said, are discussing among themselves the semiconductor industry’s corporate culture, including what it might be like to wear a bunny suit for 12-hour shifts. “For some students, who like socializing, working in a cleanroom environment might be a challenge,” White said.