By Angela Rose | Jan 31, 2023
Estrella Mountain Community College and others in Maricopa County are boosting AZ's semiconductor workforce with an intensive two-week program. We spoke with Paula Livingston, Dean of Instruction and Occupational Education, to learn more.
CompanyWeek: The expansion of major semiconductor manufacturers like TSMC, Intel, and others in Arizona seem to be regular news these days. How would you describe the current state of the industry as well as future possibilities?
Paula Livingston: Prior to major announcements by Intel and TSMC, we had a semiconductor industry in Arizona that was fairly stable. But those announcements are really propelling the industry forward.
I read a report from Forbes a while back that said that Arizona will be the central hub for semiconductor manufacturing in the United States. We're anticipating both immediate and ongoing needs for all levels of semiconductor employees to keep these companies functioning and producing semiconductor chips.
I think it's going to be a huge economy here in the state of Arizona. And I think it's going to attract other companies to move in here. We've already seen suppliers of both Intel and TSMC begin to look at Arizona as a place to move. I think that is going to continue for a while, and we're going to see some massive stuff come out of Arizona in this industry.
CW: Estrella Mountain Community College, Chandler-Gilbert Community College, and Mesa Community College recently launched a semiconductor technician training program to address this semiconductor workforce need. How did the program come about?
PL: As community colleges, we know that we have a place to serve in preparing students for jobs in these fields. Both Estrella Mountain and Mesa had advanced manufacturing programs that were teaching maintenance technicians, engineering technicians, and electromechanical technicians skills that we knew were going to be necessary for many of the manufacturing operator technician positions that Intel, TSMC, and others were going to need. The [semiconductor technician training program] made sense because it worked with programs we already had.
CW: Did the semiconductor manufacturers themselves play any role in the creation of the program?
PL: We spent weeks with our industry partners to design [the program around] the competencies that they would like an entry-level technician or operator to have. They also helped identify the equipment that we should train on. Industry expertise is critical to programs like this, so we also worked with the companies to find faculty to teach the program. We wanted someone who is in the field, doing this work, to come in and teach. The companies have provided adjunct faculty with relevant experience in the semiconductor space.
CW: Who is eligible for the Semiconductor Technician Quick Start Program, and how does it work?
PL: It's open for anyone who is interested. There is a pre-assessment that we ask students to take to test their aptitude so they can make a good call on whether it makes sense for them. From there, they work with our enrollment services to get enrolled in one of the classes.
The program is a two-week, 40-hour curriculum. Students are in class for four hours a day, five days a week. It's pretty rigorous. There's work that they do outside of class to prepare, and then we focus on the hands-on when they're in class, spending time with us on the equipment. We focus on the electrical and mechanical, doing some model-based problem solving where we actually put them in a setting with equipment where something goes wrong and they have to figure out how to fix it.
That's mostly what these students will be doing when they enter the workforce. They'll be making sure that the equipment is running, that it's maintained, and that everything keeps going because that's such a critical part of the actual production.
We also worked with NIMS to develop a semiconductor technician industry certification. And we embedded the Arizona Career Readiness credential, which addresses those professional behaviors that we’re looking for in employees when we hire them like time management, teamwork, those types of things.
Students earn three college credits in one of our degree pathways, so if they want to continue, they can do that. And we've worked with the Arizona Commerce Authority and the Office of Economic Opportunity to secure funding to offset the cost to students. Right now, the program is free if the student successfully completes it.
CW: Has the program been popular with students so far?
PL: Back in April, the First Lady came out to visit Intel. And around that time, it was announced that Maricopa was working on this semiconductor quick start training. We immediately started to get requests for information. There was a point when we had 2,000 students on a waiting list for classes, and we're still working through that as quickly as we can.
Right now, at Estrella, our spring classes are full. We're looking to add additional classes and to see how we can partner with our city organizations to get this opportunity out to more people. We're really trying to think creatively about how we can serve more people, not only for the employers who need to hire, but so we can get this opportunity into more homes and more lives.
CW: What can you tell us about the students who have been signing up to become the next generation of semiconductor manufacturing workers?
PL: We are seeing a high percentage of students in this program that are Hispanic or Latino. Overall, we're seeing more male students, but we do have 32 percent female students in the program. We're seeing positive numbers in the space when we look at women engaging in this.
One of the other really interesting things is that 51 percent of the students in the program are first generation students. By making this a short, intensive opportunity, we're able to open this up to students who might not think that college is a possibility. We're really happy to serve this high percentage of first-generation students because this is a great career and a great industry to get in to.
As far as age, our biggest group of students is between 20 and 29. But interestingly enough, we do have 22 percent between 30 and 39. And we actually have 18 percent who are 65 years and older.
CW: It sounds like Maricopa County's community colleges are poised to be invaluable partners to local semiconductor manufacturers as the industry grows within the state of Arizona. Is there anything else you think manufacturers should know about the program or community colleges in general?
PL: Community colleges stand ready to sit down and meet with industry to talk about their needs and see how we can come together to develop programs -- whether that's full two-year programs, quick start training programs like this, or even noncredit training for current employees that need to upskill or need a refresher. We have a lot of resources and a lot of ways in which we can work with industry to make sure that they've got that strong talent pipeline for a long time. So, if you've got questions about your workforce pipeline, or how we can help you in developing that, we'd be happy to hear that. That's not something that's unique to Estrella per se. It's all community colleges across the nation.
Paula Livingston is Dean of Instruction and Occupational Education at Estrella Mountain Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Angela Rose is Executive Editor of CompanyWeek, she can be reached at email@example.com.