BACK TO SCHOOL
July 8, 1998
In the second and final part in a series on Austin's conversion into a technology center, NewsHour correspondent Hedrick Smith reports on a special program created at Austin Community College to prepare workers for high-tech careers.
July 6, 1998
Part 1 in a report on Austin's conversion into a technology center.
April 3, 1998
Technology companies compete for students.
January 23, 1998
Downsized American workers are training for new high-tech jobs in community colleges.
March 27, 1996
American business leaders join the nation's governors in a search for education solutions.
December 27, 1995
Is high technology in the classroom an asset, or a liability?
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of cyberspace and education.
Austin, Texas Chamber of Commerce
Visit Hedrick Smith's PBS special on the new economy, Surviving the Bottom Line.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Part 2 of our look at Austin, Texas's efforts to develop a high-tech work force. Special Correspondent Hedrick Smith again reports.
HEDRICK SMITH: In the ever changing semiconductor industry the circuits keep getting smaller, the robots keep getting faster, and the workers have to keep getting smarter. These men and women are part of a new class of highly skilled technicians needed to operate and maintain sophisticated equipment around the clock. To fill its needs, the semiconductor industry is grooming previously untrained workers like Jeff Carroll. A former restaurant employee, Carroll now operates some of the most intricate and expensive equipment ever invented. He works the night shift in Fab 25, one of America's newest computer chip fabrication plants, run by Advanced Micro Devices in Austin, Texas.
JEFF CARROLL, Employee: A lot of people feel like we work on a conveyor belt, all we're doing is pulling a lever. That's not it at all. This is the determinate that tells how this Fab is working. If this Fab is not working right, I'm going to be the first one to know.
HEDRICK SMITH: Stan Horner initiated the worker training program for AMD.
STAN HORNER, Corporate Learning Chief, AMD '92-98: Now what you need is everybody that interfaces with equipment to understand the basic process, the chemistry behind it, the physics behind it, so they know what's going on. That way they can communicate with the engineer. I'm with this equipment all day. I now know what's going on. I can tell you, I can explain to you what's happening, and then you can go in and do some fixing on it. So it's a matter of no longer just pushing the green button when it blinks.
HEDRICK SMITH: The world of high-tech electronics often seems remote and unattainable to millions of ordinary Americans who lack a college degree. And so there are important lessons in how someone like Jeff Carroll finds a niche in this promising world of tomorrow. Jeff and hundreds like him are getting in the high-tech door through a special program created at Austin Community College. It's part of a nationwide effort bringing industry and education together to build a highly skilled modern work force and to catch up with the demands of the new economy. Richard Fonte is the president of Austin Community College.
RICHARD FONTE, President, Austin Community College: I think that community colleges are really exciting points in their existence. I think right now they're moving to a situation where they are really into complete partnerships, partnerships with the industry, and they really represent a very key source of workers for a lot of the jobs in the emerging global economy.
JEFF CARROLL, Student, Austin Community College: There's an old saying that when you see that brass ring opportunity you got to grab it, and that's just what I did, and I-when I grabbed it, I was like, well, here I am, I'm about 26, 27, and I'm waiting tables or I'm doing construction; I got to get on with my life. I got to do something.
SPOKESMAN: Trying to show you that these counters that we're just talkin' about in theory, they're actually real things.
HEDRICK SMITH: Industry's role in the program ensures up-to-the-minute training for Jeff and his classmates. Many of the teachers are full-time industry employees like Farzad Sadjadi.
FARZAD SADJADI, Operations Manager, AMD: I take pride in trying to mix in a lot of my experience into the subject matters, so that I can teach what will be more relevant, rather than just trying to cover the whole book, so I talk about what I do, so I do it all day and then in the evening I come in here and talk about it. So it makes it a lot of fun.
HEDRICK SMITH: Traffic between Austin Community College in the chip plants runs in both directions. Jeff often drives straight from school to his job, putting his education to work, checking semiconductor wafers for quality.
JEFF CARROLL: At ACC what I'm basically learning isn't so much as how to run this prober but how to understand the data that the prober's giving me. And a lot of what I learn I can use over here as far as understanding the data analysis. If it's failing, we may be able to trouble shoot the failure, and the only way you're going to be able to do that is by knowing semiconductor architecture, C-MOS devices, knowing electronics.
HEDRICK SMITH: The special program at Austin Community College was born in the mid 90's when a boom in Austin's semiconductor industry left companies scrambling for workers.
STAN HORNER: At that time we were thinking about how we're going to staff this building here, this new manufacturing facility, where are those people going to come from? We start looking around the country, talking to our recruiters and saying, hey, we're having to go further, it's taking longer, we're getting fewer people, it's getting more expensive, so it was also a wake-up call for us.
HEDRICK SMITH: Austin's chip companies all face the same shortage of skilled workers, but for several years they didn't address their common problem together. Frank Squires of Sematech, and industry research consortium, explains why.
FRANK SQUIRES, Senior Vice President, Sematech: Well, the concept of companies cooperating together in the area of work force is sort of an unnatural act when you think about it. You know, what comes naturally in our business culture is for companies to compete with each other for people, not to cooperate with each other for people.
HEDRICK SMITH: But that reluctance to work together broke down as the industry became more desperate for technicians.
STAN HORNER: We had to have a work force. We couldn't just sit back and say, well, the government or the city or somebody else is going to do this for us. If it isn't us, then who?
HEDRICK SMITH: In Sematech the industry had an instrument for collaboration. Sematech was set up in Austin in 1988 to help American chip companies compete globally by pooling their resources for joint research on pre-competitive technology. The semiconductor world was stunned last month when Frank Squires died of a heart attack. In his last interview he explained Sematech's pivotal role in uniting the industry on work force development.
FRANK SQUIRES: Because they all are struggling with the same problem, and they all through their experience in cooperating with Sematech understand the power of cooperation, and that's when we came up with this idea of getting together with AMD and Motorola, Applied Materials and IBM and Texas Instruments, all of whom hire technicians in this city to do two things. One was to speak with one voice to the educational community about the future demand. And the second one was to assist them in developing a curriculum that was up to date and relevant for our needs.
HEDRICK SMITH: Sematech and the member companies approached Austin Community College with the idea of creating a special program in semiconductor technology tailored specifically to the industry's needs.
RICHARD FONTE: We sat down work on curriculum and we invested in a building; they invested in a lot of equipment in the program, so they helped us get that program launched.
HEDRICK SMITH: Austin semiconductor companies and Sematech pitched in $2 million to build the facilities and to create the program. In four years the semiconductor program has grown dramatically, from 44 students in 1995 to 500 this year. 60 percent of them are adults getting retrained to enter a new career. But industry says it needs the program to double its enrollment by the fall of 2000. And that means recruiting people the industry has traditionally ignored: recent high school graduates like Tina Alvarez. Just three miles down the road from the space age world of Fab 25, Tina's family runs an auto paint shop. Through blazing Texas summers Tina has worked with her mother, Betty, cleaning the cars. But Tina plans on leaving the family business to work in the semiconductor industry.
BETTY ESPINOZA, Tina's Mother: I'm losing her. I'm losing her. And she's going to go work in air condition, not in heater. (laughing)
HEDRICK SMITH: Tina was introduced to Austin's high-tech world through a summer internship at Advanced Micro Devices.
TINA ALVAREZ, Student, Austin Community College: I really didn't know what the companies were. I didn't know what they were doing here. I didn't know what they manufactured, or anything like that. I just, when I heard about the program, it was more of an opportunity to make money over the summer. I was more looking for something more spoiled, sitting behind a desk in the air condition, something like that.
HEDRICK SMITH: But were you looking for electronics?
TINA ALVAREZ: I didn't even know what it was.
HEDRICK SMITH: The internship led her to enroll at Austin Community College after graduating from high school.
HEDRICK SMITH: So how did you like the electronics?
TINA ALVAREZ: As far as the classes, it was challenging. It was a lot of math and a lot of equation solving, and me personally, I live math and science, so it was no big deal for me. So I enjoyed the classes for that fact that it had a lot of math and science involved in it
HEDRICK SMITH: Now, has this changed your life? I mean, do you feel your life changing?
TINA ALVAREZ: Yes. I do. Mainly because now I know that I'm gonna do something. It's going to be a lot easier to get where I'm going.
BETTY ESPINOZA: I'll miss her. I'll miss those little hands, but you know, she's taking a big step and doing good. She's gonna do something for her life. And it's going to bring her money. Just like she told me, she said, I'm not gonna flip burgers, Mom, and I said, all right. Well, she hasn't flipped one yet.
TINA ALVAREZ: I don't want to just stop at the associates degree. I want to maybe get a bachelor's, a masters, and now little by little is-I see where I'm going with it, and that's-I'm just gonna let it go as it goes.
HEDRICK SMITH: This summer AMD brought Tina back for another internship in Fab 25. But one of the industry's periodic slowdowns has some people wondering whether the roller coaster semiconductor industry will stick with the educational program over the long-term. Stan Horner anticipated that skepticism.
STAN HORNER: If we go in there and get this started and then quit, it could be the worse thing we've ever done, because these are long-term programs, we'll set expectations with local communities. We're going to be here whether business is good or business is bad. And if we back out, then we're going to lose face in the community. So once we make this commitment, we're committing ourselves for the long-term.
RICHARD FONTE: We're not talking about, oh, just a mild flirtation by business with a college. We're now talking about really a marriage situation, and I think that's really different for community colleges around the country.
HEDRICK SMITH: But that does not mean business and education mesh easily or automatically. Business wants workers right away, while education takes years to produce graduates. And those different tempos can strain a relationship. For example, companies are so impatient for workers that they hire students in the middle of their academic program. That undercuts the graduation rate and frustrates the college.
RICHARD FONTE: The industry has to have the patience to wait for some workers to come through the whole program. But, you know, there is such a demand there is no question that a lot of students after one years are getting jobs in the industry and then they are coming back, but then they're coming back on a more part-time basis.
HEDRICK SMITH: Why don't you go full-time? Some people go full-time, get the degree, and then they get into industry.
JEFF CARROLL: You mean go full-time to school?
HEDRICK SMITH: Go full-time to school.
JEFF CARROLL: Well, someone's got to pay the bills.
HEDRICK SMITH: Does AMD help pay for that college education?
JEFF CARROLL: Oh, yes. They pay for the whole thing. I don't even write a check.
HEDRICK SMITH: But AMD foots the bill only if Jeff Carroll works at the chip fab full-time, pushing Jeff and many other students into part-time education. Despite such wrinkles, Sematech's idea of using the community college system as an industry training ground is catching on all across the country.
RICHARD FONTE: What we're really doing is creating a national curriculum so that the curriculum for what goes on for a technician in a fab in Richmond, Virginia, or Portland, or Austin, is all the same.
HEDRICK SMITH: Today more than 50 community colleges in 15 states offer the semiconductor technology degree. Nearly 5,000 students are investing their future in the industry's program. And industry is investing in community colleges as a long-term strategy.
HEDRICK SMITH: Has there been an adequate payoff and dividend for AMD from this investment?
STAN HORNER: At the current time the answer would absolutely have to be no. You have to keep in mind the school only opened in '95. So it's a two year-actually a two and a half year curriculum. So the first graduates are now finally beginning to come out of that program. It's going to take years for that investment to pay back, and we're going to continue to put in.
HEDRICK SMITH: And you're comfortable with that?
STAN HORNER: Well, look at the alternative. The alternative is not having enough qualified workers to continue to staff and support our operations. So basically our choices are limited. We can continue to pay exorbitant amounts of money to move people and recruit people into here, or we can put that money and use it right here at home, where we can help people improve themselves, and get a career in an exciting industry, and everybody can win from that.