Aiming for the top of their class


Community colleges integrate micro, nanotech into curricula in drive to support local industry development

By Sarah Fister Gale

Nanotechnology today may be dominated largely by visionary scientists dedicated to finding revolutionary applications for molecular-scale materials. However, making the jump from research to product development will take more nano engineers than nano scientists. In fact, nanotech is expected to create more than two million jobs by 2015, according to the National Science Foundation. This creates a new challenge. Industry has less than a decade to train the workers to fill those jobs.

“Scientists are great at making discoveries,” said Robert Cormia, an engineering and nanoscience instructor at Foothill College in California’s Silicon Valley. But as we head toward an era of nano manufacturing, “We need engineers and technicians who have the skills to build and run the tools.”

Photo courtesy of Central New Mexico Community College
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That’s where community colleges come in. While many people view two year programs as the lesser cousins of four year universities, these schools provide a precious resource to businesses moving into nanotech: rapidly-trained, highly-skilled workers.

“Nanotechnology, MEMS, and advanced manufacturing technology will dramatically change (California’s) manufacturing sector by 2015, but industry needs people to enter the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) to meet the workforce needs,” said Gus Koehler, president of consultancy Time Structures. “Community colleges get those people in.”

Koehler co-authored a recent report, “Training California’s New Workforce for 21st Century Nanotechnology, MEMS, and Advanced Manufacturing Jobs” that was prepared for the Economic and Workforce Development Program of California Community Colleges’ Workplace Learning Initiative.

Time Structures used various sources to roughly forecast the number of manufacturing, nanotechnology and MEMS jobs that could be created or influenced due to emerging technologies. The projections far exceed the number of expected manufacturing jobs from traditional fields. The challenge, concluded the organization, will be not only to train workers to fill job openings created by retiring, highly skilled older workers, but also to retrain incumbent workers to the technical and innovative requirements of the new enabling technologies. Source: Time Structures.
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Adding nanotech to the curriculum quickly produces workers with much-needed engineering and technical skills, Koehler said. It also draws in students who would never have considered a four year degree in nanotech and gives others an opportunity to try out training programs with the goal of moving on to a four year degree program in the field.

Pacing education with job growth

Recognizing the growth in nanotech development, community colleges across the nation are partnering with universities, companies, and industry associations to build nanotech courses and programs into their curricula to meet the growing demand for nano-skilled workers. Many of these schools are also benefiting from generous state grants as local politicians hope to turn their cities into nanotech super hubs.

“Nano is the crown jewel,” Foothill’s Cormia said of the drive to bring training and jobs to certain regions. He cites his own school’s survey of 40 California companies that predicts the growth of 5,000 nanotech jobs in the San Francisco Bay area alone by 2010. The survey identified six key nanotech competencies that fell across 10 vertical industries: nanofabrication, materials characterization/modeling, surfaces and thin films, MEMS devices and sensors, nanobiology, and semiconductors and nanoelectronics.

Foothill hopes to be a primary resource of candidates for those jobs through its new nanotechnology training program launched in conjunction with San Jose State University and Stanford Nanolab. “Silicon Valley can’t just be about research and development,” he said. “We have to wring value from the entire chain and that includes engineering and manufacturing.”

The challenge, however, is pacing the development of nanotech training with job growth in the area, and targeting the best courses to fill those jobs.

Based on the survey, Foothill chose to produce a series of courses that could be applied across multiple degree programs instead of creating a specific nanotech degree. By incorporating nano-training into multiple programs, the school can continue to turn out students with traditional degrees in key areas while giving them an additional foundation of nanotech training that will enable them to move into nanotech-centric jobs.

Most colleges pursuing nanotech programs have found this to be the best approach, said Hector Aguilar, department chair of the advanced technology department at Austin Community College (ACC), a technical school in Texas that offers programs in semiconductor, robotics, automation, engineering technology, and network telecommunications.

The University of New York at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering partnered with neighboring Hudson Valley Community College to build a two year nanotech program, through which Hudson Valley students can benefit from Albany’s world-class facilities. Above, a technician works in one of Albany’s state-of-the-art fabs. Photo courtesy of Albany Nanotech
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“Building a nano-specific program today could be risky,” Aguilar said. “Companies are not necessarily looking for nano degrees. They still want traditional degrees in semiconductor manufacturing or electronics, with nano-training built in.”

The blanket-impact of nanotech was the impetus for ACC’s $4 million Nanoelectronic Workforce Development Initiative launched recently in conjunction with SEMATECH and Texas State Technical College in Waco to train technicians and engineers in nanoelectronics. The program initially plans to train 160 two year technical, undergraduate, and graduate students in nanoelectronics, and hopes to expand as the industry matures. “Nano is the future,” Aguilar said. “It will affect most of the programs we offer.”

Getting a firm commitment from industry to provide jobs to new graduates reduces the risk of launching a nanotech program, said Al West, executive director of the Southwest Center for Microsystems Education at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) in Albuquerque. The center provides the microsystems industry with workforce development models, materials, and opportunities for communities creating microsystems technology clusters.

When companies such as Intel come to New Mexico, CNM works in partnership with them to develop training programs that will meet their future hiring needs.

“The key is to build slowly,” West said, “so the workforce is ready when the business comes online without having an overabundance of graduates.”

Partner or perish

Developing partnerships with industry, academia and government is critical, said Cormia. “For community colleges interested in launching nanotech programs, partnering is more important than money. Universities and associations have access to tools and expertise that a community college could never replicate.”

Foothill relies heavily on its partnerships with San Jose State University and Stanford Nanolab to help it develop a curriculum, mentor students, and provide access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.

Through the partnerships, Foothill students benefit from job shadowing, doing hands-on work with atomic force microscopes and lasers, touring cutting-edge cleanrooms, and viewing tapes of university level courses.

The graph attempts to forecast how future developments in nanotechnology/MEMS and advanced manufacturing track with changes in the composition of the workforce, and with the production of new jobs. Time Structures predicts that the dramatic increase in California’s high school population will fill the jobs generated by the anticipated rapid development of the nanotechnology and MEMS sectors. Source: Time Structures.
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“Large universities that get millions of dollars in grants are required to do community college outreach - just knock on their door,” he said. “Stanford has been such a friend to us. They’ve bent over backwards to help us launch this program.”

The universities benefit from these relationships as well, said Michael Fancher, associate professor of nanoeconomics at University of New York at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE). CNSE partnered with neighboring Hudson Valley Community College to build a two year nanotech program, through which Hudson Valley students can benefit from Albany’s state-of-the-art facilities and world-class faculty.

“Our strategy is to develop a manufacturing cluster in nanotech and continuing education is part of that,” Fancher said. “The partnership with Hudson Valley helps us provide the whole solution. CNSE can focus on developing long-term resources while Hudson Valley supports short-term manufacturing needs.”

Once Hudson Valley students complete their training they have opportunities to further their education at Albany, and to participate in jointly-held job fairs in nanotech related fields. At the most recent fair in May, 60 Hudson Valley graduates found jobs in partnering companies, such as M & W Zander, with salaries ranging from $30,000 to 60,000 a year.

“A two year degree costs roughly $6,000 and they come out of it with a career making $30,000,” said Phil White, dean of the school of engineering and industrial technologies at Hudson Valley. “Compare that to the cost of a four year degree.”

The mass hiring also resulted in growing interest in the nanotech tracks at Hudson Valley. “In the first year, it was difficult to get students to participate,” White admits, but requests for information have grown ten-fold since the media covered the job fair. “People are starting to see nanotech as a realistic career path.”

As nanotech products continue to move into the marketplace, the number of high paying jobs in nanotech fields should help keep these community college programs burgeoning for years to come, Koehler said. He predicts that in five to ten years the commercial viability of nanotech may warrant the creation of nanotech specific degree programs.

“The astounding rate of development in nanotech is going to cause a dramatic change in the workforce by 2015,” he said. “The challenge now is to make sure we ramp up training at the right speed so we can train people into those jobs as they come down the pipeline.”