Machines buzzed in the background at Shin-Etsu Handotai America as Nathaniel Salveta pored over a cylinder of silicon destined to become computer chips and sensors.
This is high-level stuff. Imperfections like chips or warps, or even the cylinder being turned the wrong way can spell disaster later down the line when slices of silicon called wafers are sent off to technology companies. But Salveta, at all of 18 years old, is an old pro.
Salveta is one of five students enrolled in Manufacturing Career Launch, a pilot career-training program between SEH America and Clark College. Key players in the program hope it will serve as a blueprint for future apprenticeships in the region’s growing advanced manufacturing sector.
That’s critical to the region, which right now faces a massive workforce shortage in the high-tech field, according to the Southwest Washington STEM Network. An estimated 81 percent of new jobs in these high growth fields will require a post-secondary certification, credential or degree, yet only a third of area students who start high school each fall are expected to earn one.
“We have a long way to go on that,” said Ben Bagherpour, vice president of site services and government affairs for SEH America.
And job growth in this sector is outpacing other fields. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, employment in science, technology, engineering and math fields is growing at a rate of 24.4 percent in the last decade, compared with 4 percent growth in non-STEM fields.
“It’s going to meet the needs of our business community,” Clark College President Bob Knight said. “There’s a huge demand there.”
‘Best of both worlds’
The five students enrolled in the program will spend two years pursuing an associate degree in mechatronics while working part time at the silicon wafer manufacturing company. SEH America is paying for those students’ tuition as an employee benefit, with plans to open the program to a larger cohort of students in future years.
Knight compared the program to a long-term job interview with SEH America. The hope is that students will complete their associate degree at the college, then transition into a full-time position at the company.
“We’ve got to get these kids while they’re young,” Knight said.
Those benefits were huge for Salveta, who wanted to be an engineer but didn’t want an engineer’s college debt. According to The Institute for College Access and Success, the average Washington student in the class of 2016 took on $24,609 in student loan debt — and our state is on the low end compared with other regions in the United States.
Salveta interned twice before at SEH America, and he overheard Natalie Pacholl, the company’s training and development specialist, talking about forming the program from the start. It was a natural fit.
“I get college paid for, and I get paid,” Salveta said. “It’s basically the best of both worlds.”
Were it not for this program, the way Salveta tells it, his options would have been limited: accept that much in debt, or find a low-wage job to make ends meet. Instead, he graduated from Union High School in June, and started classes and working at SEH America in July.
“The biggest part is I’m doing what I want to do, as opposed to what I have to do,” Salveta says.
The program is also rooted in the idea of creating an education-to-workforce pipeline. Rather than operating the public school system, colleges and businesses in isolation, programs like the Manufacturing Career Launch blur the lines between those stages.
Bagherpour explained that the program borrows from Switzerland’s apprenticeship model, where the majority of high school graduates enter apprenticeships, receive classroom instruction and on-the-job training, then, if they do well, receive full-time positions with the companies where they apprenticed.
Ted Feller, executive director of the Southwest Washington STEM Network, said he often hears from high-tech manufacturing companies that there simply aren’t enough skilled laborers in Clark County to do these types of jobs.
But if companies shift their focus from finding those several dozen perfect candidates to looking at thousands of high school students who may have the aptitude for the jobs, they may find a strong labor market, after all.
“You’ve got to invest,” Feller said. “Training the right technicians will make your company successful.”
It also recognizes that for many students, pursuing a more academically-rigorous college degree right out of college may not be the best option.
“If we can make a school system, an education system, built on career opportunities instead of just for university entrance, we will be a community that has a vibrant economy and a great education system,” Feller said.
Still, students who enroll won’t be prevented or discouraged from pursuing more advanced degrees down the line. Pacholl with SEH said all the classes students take are “stackable,” meaning they will translate into other degree programs and allow students to pursue different degrees in the high-tech field.
“There’s no dead ends,” Pacholl said.
That was yet another draw for Salveta, who still isn’t sure whether he wants to pursue an engineering degree, or even what department of SEH America he’d like to eventually settle into if he’s hired. He prefers that flexibility.
“There’s opportunity,” Salveta said. “It’s up to me to choose the path.”