Only a few community colleges
training future MEMS workforce

It’s a rare breed they nurture at the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute in New Mexico: students studying MEMS.

TVI had a classroom full of them this spring. Fabian Lopez, a technology instructor there, offered an introductory “how and wow” course on MEMS that quickly filled up. He is now developing a full curriculum on the subject that the school will debut in January.

Lopez is confident the curriculum will be popular, and local employers welcome the move to train more future engineers in MEMS. But for all the enthusiasm, TVI is a rare instance of MEMS workforce development reaching down to the ground floor of higher education. For the most part, MEMS is still stuck in the ivory tower.

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“There are very few community colleges that are offering MEMS,” said David Hata, head of the Microelectronics Technology Program of Portland Community College in Oregon, which does not cover MEMS. “A few colleges would like to offer it, but very few do.”

The reason? Most parts of the United States don’t have enough of a MEMS industry to warrant serious attention from community colleges. No industry means no jobs after graduation — therefore, no student demand and MEMS curriculum.

“It seems like it wouldn’t be that hard for us to do,” said Hector Aguilar, a semiconductor professor at Austin Community College in Texas. His department just wrapped up an overview MEMS course this spring, and he has directed an instructor to develop a MEMS course for next fall. “I’m for it. I’m pushing for it.”

But, he admitted, “Students want to know that when they finish it, they will have a job. And right now, there’s not much happening in Austin.”

At some point when MEMS technology permeates the electronics industry, community colleges are likely to play the same lynchpin role for skilled labor that they do in the semiconductor industry now: factory and foundry workers producing the devices that the Ph.D. researchers draw up on the whiteboard.

Texas Instruments Inc., for example, pays graduates of two-year college programs anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000. TI staffing manager Diana Johnson said that skill level “is very hard to find.” While Johnson did not comment specifically on MEMS training efforts, she said TI spends more than $10 million annually helping schools to design technology curricula and training professors in the latest research.

Lopez oversees a large MEMS effort for a community college, thanks to a three-year, $300,000 grant the school received from NASA to create a MEMS curriculum. Two courses will be introduced in 2003, two more in 2004 and a final two more the year after that.

The first track will be a MEMS design program to teach materials science, chemistry and batch manufacturing processes. The second track will train technicians to work in foundry clean rooms. TVI already has a model clean room for semiconductors, and is slowly clearing out that equipment to make it more of a MEMS lab. Lopez is consulting with NASA, nearby Sandia National Laboratories and a few of the school’s industry partners this summer to polish up the curriculum.

Lopez said he began hearing about MEMS a few years ago and started to investigate. “The more I looked, the more attractive it seemed for the school,” he said. “When you see a VC frothing at the mouth over something, you know it’s a good thing.”

College administrators like Lopez and Aguilar hope to seize the momentum on MEMS, and not be caught short as the field grows in coming years. On more than one occasion already, Lopez has sent away MEMS businesses looking for workers empty-handed. Aguilar has not fielded any such requests yet, but wants to be ready for the sort of rapid surge that semiconductor companies are known for.

“If we don’t do it within a year from now, I don’t know that it would still be there for us to do at all,” he said.

Community colleges in the usual tech regions — Boston, New Mexico, Texas, California — are generally well suited for a move to MEMS. Most of the schools already have semiconductor programs and model clean rooms, which can be easily restructured to incorporate MEMS as dictated by industry needs.

Likewise, teachers on semiconductor faculty can be trained for MEMS education by industry partners. Some businesses around Albuquerque, Lopez said, have already offered to guest lecture or help with teaching.

But most community colleges are not rushing to embrace MEMS. Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, surrounded by MEMS shops such as Corning Intellisense and Standard MEMS, has no specific offerings yet. Technology professor Robert Bowles only began speaking to local industry players last month about starting a course.

TVI is the exception to the rule because of Sandia and the many MEMS-related spinoff businesses that have sprouted around Albuquerque. One such business is MEMX Inc., whose 30 employees make products for the telecommunications industry.

“The need for MEMX in the future won’t be Ph.D.s,” said Paul McWhorter, MEMX’s chief technology officer. “It will be the hands-on lab engineers. The TVI level of education will be a powerful tool to get that.”

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