On Dec. 6, President Joe Biden spoke at the construction site of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s (TSMC) new chip factory in North Phoenix, where the manufacturer announced that it was building a second fab, increasing its overall expenditure to $40 billion, making it the largest direct foreign investment in Arizona history. In his remarks, Biden says that Phoenix — and the U.S. more broadly — is a top destination for companies across the globe “because we have a world class, highly skilled, committed workforce,” highlighting the importance of STEM education and training.
Many criteria factor into the site selection process, yet having a talent pipeline in place is crucial. After all, a state-of-the-art factory is useless without employees with the necessary skills to operate it. Chris Camacho, president and CEO of Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC), says that investments in education have been crucial to the state’s growth streak.
“About 12 years ago, we had a core inflection point as a state where we realized that the boom-and-bust cycle was here to stay if we didn’t change our strategy,” he recalls.
Part of that shift included making Arizona more competitive from a tax policy perspective, diversifying the types of companies that were recruited, expanding infrastructure and devoting more resources to education, especially STEM programs.
In 2020, then-Governor Doug Ducey announced a $35 million investment in the New Economy Initiative, an effort led by the Arizona Board of Regents to increase access to the state’s public universities and expand workforce development offerings. Camacho applauds Ducey and the legislature for prioritizing education.
“Arizona State University (ASU) has an engineering school with 30,000 students enrolled, making it the largest engineering school in the country,” Camacho says. “Globally, companies are taking notice. Our identity 12 years ago was about speed to market, being low cost and having a competitive operating environment. We have all those things still, but we also have an intentional roadmap around STEM, infrastructure and high value jobs. That’s the pivot we’ve made.”
STEM technicians wanted
During Biden’s TSMC visit, Senator Mark Kelly delivered a speech where he recalled speaking with an Arizona woman who enrolled in a 10-day semiconductor technician program at a local community college, after which she secured a job in the field.
“For folks who don’t have a four-year degree, they will now be able to raise a family on that salary as a semiconductor manufacturing technician,” he says. “We’re on the road to a new future where the best chips in the world are made from start to finish right here in America. And that road runs through the state of Arizona.”
Technicians have a more problem solving role within a chip fab compared to engineers, explains Rick Vaughn, faculty chair of STEM initiatives at Rio Salado College. To be an engineer in one of these facilities requires at least a bachelor’s degree — often a master’s degree — and a high capacity for critical thinking.
“They’re the ones who are installing the equipment and writing the ‘recipes’ for how to use this tool for that particular process,” Vaughn says. “Engineers make the high-level decisions.”
The machines used to manufacture semiconductors are remarkably expensive and technicians are tasked with ensuring it operates smoothly.
“When an engineer notices something is wrong, technicians are the ones who keep the equipment up and running,” Vaughn notes. “They have a more hands-on kind of role. Technicians are one of the most understated yet invaluable employees.”
Vaughn is responsible for Rio Salado College’s semiconductor manufacturing program — officially called nanotechnology — after seeing a need for a two-year pathway that would prepare students for a technician level role, rather than transferring to a university’s engineering school. Certificates that require fewer academic credits to attain are also available.
“Semiconductor manufacturing in the Valley is exploding and the need for technicians working in this area is already immense. The demand will be even greater as new fabs come on board,” Vaughn says.
About 18 months ago, Vaugh applied for — and received — a $300,000 advanced technical education grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) intended to support training technicians through hybrid teaching methods. This means that students in the semiconductor manufacturing program use Rio Salado’s online learning platform to access readings, assessments and video lectures, then come into a lab for the hands-on portion.
Students get exposure to this industry standard equipment at either the ASU Tempe campus or the university’s MacroTechology Works facility, which serves as an accelerator for semiconductor, advanced materials and energy device research.
“We don’t have $5 million to build a cleanroom, but ASU already has those facilities.” Vaughn says. “[ASU professor of electrical engineering] Trevor Thornton also has an NSF grant under a different program called the Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest, so he heads one of the regional hubs that’s serving this same need. He’s been tremendously supportive, and we have a great partnership.”
Vaughn adds that he was approached by Pennsylvania State University to be a sub-awardee under its own NSF grant to deliver semiconductor manufacturing curriculum to military affiliated and veteran populations free of charge. The program currently has 12 slots and begins in February.
“Community colleges are about changing family trees and finding success through these short-term training programs, stackable credentials and two-year degrees — not just for Arizonans but all Americans.” Camacho says. “There are so many in-demand jobs in that segment today.
“We’re going to continue to work with Governor Hobbs, this new legislature and our congressional leadership on what the next 10 years will look like,” Camacho concludes. “We should be much more ambitious in the next decade around the same things that got us here: STEM education investments, infrastructure and pro-business policies.”