Finding a Place for Technicians

It's always interesting to get the various perspectives surrounding hiring issues in manufacturing these days. A discussion I've been following lately is still broiling in the Semiconductor Manufacturing group on LinkedIn. The discussion began with a blog post from EFI Group -- "Where Have All the Technicians Gone? Addressing the Manufacturing Skills Gap" -- that looks at the popular topic of late about industry's apparent inability to fill needed technical positions.

It's been a popular topic in itself, but what I've been most interested in is the turn the conversation has taken to look specifically at technician positions that typically require two-year education stints rather than a four- or more-year engineering degree. One contributor to the discussion, Eric Kirchner, runs an AAS program targeting semiconductor manufacturing technicians. “There is so much push to four-year schools, the kid that would be ideal in my program never has a chance to find themselves, and I have no easy way to find them.”

Kirchner points out the need to teach K-12 math in more applied ways, and then there needs to be a path for these kids that doesn’t necessarily involve a four-year degree.

But even without more kids finding the right path to manufacturing careers, there seems to be a disconnect between existing technicians and existing jobs. In many people’s experience, this cry for help from industrial bosses does not translate into new jobs for the technical masses.

A couple guys involved in the discussion noted this anomaly: “If experienced technicians are in demand, why can’t I find good employment within the semiconductor industry?” asked William Matalonis. “I have over 10 years’ experience on low, medium and high current implanters along with PVD experience.”

Mauricio Fernandez says, “I am also trying to understand the logic behind this madness.” After 12 years of semiconductor experience, he’s decided it’s time to find a different career. “There are many high-skilled techs out there, but many of them are unemployed.”

I asked Matalonis and Fernandez to tell me more about what they’ve seen in their job searches. Fernandez, who has worked every stage of the semiconductor process, says he’s gotten a couple offers, but only for temp or contract work. “I reside in San Francisco, one hour away from Silicon Valley,” he says. “There are plenty of jobs here, but the common factor is that some companies are using temp agencies and they usually pay low wages. My belief is that some companies are taking advantage of the current economy and want to pay low wages; hence, some experienced techs like me have decided to either go back to school for a four-year degree or find alternative jobs. I decided to complete my B.S. in operations management and get out of the technical field. I would not recommend someone to pursue a technical career anymore; it is not worth it.”

And then there’s discussion about what a “technician” actually is. As some note, companies are in some cases doing away with the technician, dividing their responsibilities between “advanced operators” and engineering staff. Peter Cyr says that, along the way, “technician” has become a derogatory term. “We, me included, have been put into a bracket limited to contract/low-wage and contingent workforce status.”

Sarah Albers, a maintenance technician for Avago Technologies in Fort Collins, Colo., says her company hasn’t hired technicians for five or so years, instead adding more workload to existing employees. Pay hasn’t gone up in about 10 years, despite the rising cost of living, she adds. “As Peter says, the term ‘technician’ has been corrupted,” she laments. “Now it means operator with a bonus. In even broader terms, it means nothing anymore, as it has been co-opted to place on the title of anyone who hates their current job title. Maintenance technician can mean anything from cleaning the toilets to cleaning the arsenic-laden implanters. Semiconductor companies have to wake up and realize that their maintenance organizations are staffed with incredibly talented and underpaid ‘engineers’ who weren’t patient enough to sit through four years of college.”