ELYRIA, Ohio — By the time Intel breaks ground on its massive factory in Central Ohio late this year, a Lorain County program teaching how to make semi-conductor chips will be nearly a decade old.
Lorain County Community College began offering courses in microelectronics manufacturing in 2013, and offers certifications, associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in the field. Students range from 16-year-olds taking classes during high school to 60-year-olds looking for a second career.
But they all have one thing in common: being sought after for jobs.
“Desperate is not a nice word, but it’s kind of an appropriate word for what companies are going through,” said Johnny Vanderford, an assistant professor at LCCC’s Micro Electromechanical Systems (MEMS) school.
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Vanderford’s program is consistently sending students to work at local companies, whether they work on the machines used in cryptocurrency, manufacture TVs or work on aerospace parts. And companies are consistently asking LCCC to send more students their way. He says 100% of graduates have ended up getting jobs, many of them while in college.
Em Williams would have said working at NASA was a dream job a few months ago. Now she’s doing research for the agency through a scholarship she won, even before finishing her associate’s degree in the MEMs program.
Williams said she’s found an industry where she can mix her love of science and art, adding that circuit boards give her a place to test her designing skills.
“I get to do something I enjoy, and I’m getting paid well to do it,” she said.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Ellis is tasked with repairing the machines used in bitcoin mining at his job at Repair Bit. He’s in his final semester before finishing his bachelor’s degree.
What makes his job especially challenging is how new the cryptocurrency industry is, and how much people tend to keep their designs secret. He said he often has to reverse engineer devices to fix them.
“When you look at this circuit board, it’s like something you’ve never seen,” Ellis said.
A virtuous cycle
LCCC in 2010 was already looking at advanced manufacturing and how to train students for a new wave of jobs, said Matt Apanius, director of the Richard Desich SMART center on the college’s campus.
With state money and a local donation, they built SMART Microsystems in 2011, a prototyping company that could help local business in the microelectronics space.
But before they could start the MEMs program in 2013, the state wanted the college to prove it was needed before it granted funding. And before businesses signed letters of support, they wanted to know If the program would bring them workers, Vanderford said.
That’s why students have a working requirement to graduate, and why the microelectronics program and businesses now have a virtuous cycle, Vanderford explained.
LCCC continues to send graduates and current students into jobs at local companies, and then those companies ask for more students, while giving feedback on what skills they need the most.
Vanderford said LCCC adapts the curriculum based on feedback. Right now many graduates are hired for their circuit board skills, more than their semiconductor chip knowledge. But as Intel starts needing more semiconductor training, Vanderford said they’ll adapt.
LCCC’s programs teach the skills and tasks needed post wafer, which is the thin silicone disc companies like Intel make their semiconductor chips with.
Students learn to put copper on silicon discs layer by layer, and to use chemicals and UV light to remove precise amounts to build complex circuits inside of tiny squares. Even with LCCC’s technology, which is lower tech compared to a mega-manufacturer like Intel, much of the circuits on the chips are too small to see without microscopes.
One wafer can hold thousands of chips in row after row that are cut into individual pieces. Students learn how to solder those mechanical brains into protective “skulls.” After that they can be placed into any number of electronics.
Although students learn how to run and program the automated machines used by many manufacturers, they also learn to solder and design circuit boards by hand. Much of the work, like connecting gold wires thinner than a hair, or adding capacitors and chips, is done with the aid of a microscope.
Vanderford said it important for students to understand how these microelectronics work and what the machines they’re running do.
The program fits a sweet spot, Vanderford, because most companies are either hiring people with more advanced degrees (with not much real hands-on experience) or people with no microelectronics experience at all.
It varies by job, but Vanderford said MEMs students tend to make between $14 and $20 an hour during their internships, between $35,000 and $50,000 a year with an associate’s degree and as much as $75,000 with a bachelor’s degree from MEMs.
Because bachelor’s program is the newest, added in 2018, only a few people have graduated so far. About 80 or 90 students can be in the program at a time. Meanwhile 80 companies have partnered with LCCC’s niche curriculum and ask to post 10 to 20 jobs to students a week, Vanderford said.
LCCC also offers seminars that companies can bring current workers too. Rather than a degree and classes, employees get a week of training to get up to speed.
The next workforce
The MEMs students are part of the growing workforce needed for advanced manufacturing, both for large players like Intel and smaller companies that continue to come here. Some of them have even made T-shirts with the words “Silicon Heartland,” which Intel’s CEO Pat Gelsinger dubbed Ohio when he announced the Intel plant.
Since nearby companies already want more workers than LCCC can train, programs like the MEMs school are likely to come online. Vanderford and Apanius said Ohio’s higher education institutions have already pledged to prepare students for Intel.
Williams, who originally started at LCCC studying computer-aided design, said she wants many younger people to know microelectronics is an option, especially other young women. In a field still dominated by men, she said they should know they’re not alone.
In her other job on LCCC’s campus, where she helps in science labs, she said she makes it a point to have relationships with the women she’s helping in class.
Ellis, who was originally heavy into IT during high school, but got hooked on microelectronics after attending an open house before he started college.
He’s hopeful that he can part of a generation that brings semiconductor and microelectronic manufacturing to the states, because world events show how much it’s needed.