Semiconductor Cleanrooms 101: Cleanroom training pays off in Texas


By Hank Hogan

Kelly Freeman, a physics major at Texas State University in San Marcos, wanted to explore her employment options and boost her chances of finding a job. So she took an internship with ATDF (Austin, TX), a nanoelectronics research and development foundry, as part of the state-funded Nanoelectronics Workforce Development Initiative (NWDI).

She found the experience educational in more ways than one. She learned, for example, that because people in cleanrooms are gowned, they look alike. “You learn who people are by their stance and their walk,” says Freeman.

That sort of hands-on experience and familiarity with cleanrooms, process tools, and contamination control is one reason why NWDI exists and why industry supports it. However, a look at the program and others around the country reveals that, in some ways, cleanroom workforce training is a case of the rich getting richer.

A joint venture between ATDF, Austin Community College (ACC), and SEMATECH, the training program recently announced the offering of online applications for the summer session. Launched in March 2006, NWDI is in its third class of interns, almost half way to its goal of getting 160 students through the program.

Interns are paid a stipend for 15-, 26- or 52-week training periods. They undergo basic orientation and cleanroom training before moving into positions in facilities, analytical labs, and engineering roles. Some do actual wafer processing inside the fab while others help install and repair tools.

Don Baskin, manager of environmental safety and health at ATDF, coordinates the program. He notes success on a number of fronts. For one thing, interns get job offers and interviews after completing the program. For another, fears that ATDF would end up spending all its time training interns have proven unfounded. As just one example, some process optimization work has benefited from student efforts.

“It’s turned out that they’ve been very bright interns, they’ve come up to speed very fast, and it’s really helped add more resources into our research programs here,” says Baskin.

The widespread concern about a shortage of skilled workers is evident in programs undertaken by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), the San Jose, California-based trade group. SIA is working to improve the quality and supply of electrical engineers for the industry and to train the best technician workforce. Programs like NWDI support such efforts.

But Hector Aguilar, chair of the district electronics and advanced technologies department at ACC, says many more such cleanroom workforce training programs existed a decade ago. The number has dropped in part because cleanrooms have either gone overseas or else have congregated in certain areas.

That concentration helps a fortunate few. ACC’s cleanroom training efforts, for instance, have profited from equipment donated by Applied Materials, Spansion, AMD, Freescale and other semiconductor-related companies with local operations. What’s more, those who complete training at ACC can get jobs because local employers exist. It’s a feedback loop, notes Aguilar. “If you don’t have the workforce, you don’t have the companies. If you don’t have the companies, it’s really hard to develop the workforce,” he says.