How Ohio colleges are building a "Silicon Heartland" workforce ready for Intel

Virginia Brown
For Columbus CEO
An Intel engineer inspects a mask as part of the Intel Mask Operation in Santa Clara, California. The mask operation team builds the masks used as the templates to print circuitry onto a silicon wafer. To create a mask, engineers use computerized drawings that are the blueprints for Intel processors and their billions of transistors. (Credit: Tim Herman/Intel Corporation)

On March 17, Intel delivered Ohio education leaders some exciting news.

Joined by Gov. Mike DeWine and a host of community, business and education leaders at Columbus State Community College, the company announced a $100 million investment over the next decade in semiconductor education and research programs in order to staff its newly announced factory near New Albany.

Fifty million of those funds will go to Ohio higher education institutions, with an additional $50 million to be matched from the National Science Foundation for national funding opportunities.

In January, Intel announced plans for a $20 billion investment in two new chip factories in Licking County. To staff the factories, Intel will have to tap into an ecosystem of community, education and business partnerships.

The semiconductor industry directly employs nearly a quarter of a million workers in the U.S. In 2020, industry sales totaled $208 billion, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Powering everything from smartphones to drones, satellites and medical equipment, as demand continues to grow, the semiconductor manufacturing supply chain faces serious challenges.

In 2017, SEMI, the global industry association serving the electronics manufacturing supply chain, conducted a survey that found 82 percent of semiconductor industry executives experienced a shortage of qualified job candidates at every skill and education level, from technicians to doctoral level engineers.

To sustain and grow the invention and production of chip technologies, the U.S. has to increase the number of students enrolled in STEM-related courses at colleges and universities and increase the number of diversity of graduates into the industry.

In Ohio, that means creating a talent pipeline that aligns with Intel’s needs over the next decade.

What jobs is Intel creating in Ohio?

Cindi Harper, Intel’s vice president of talent planning and acquisition, has worked with the company for 26 years and is no stranger to this type of challenge. Based in Arizona, she oversees hiring for Intel’s similar chip facilities in that state.

“From the talent perspective, we definitely look at what we can tap into from the ratings of the schools within the surrounding areas …” she says. “What type of talent exists there, and what we can attract to that location.”

According to Harper, of the 10,000 jobs Intel plans to create in Ohio, 7,000 of them will be outsourced to trade construction workers to get the factory running. Once the factory is built, Harper says it’ll take roughly 3,000 employees to maintain it.

“Seventy percent will be manufacturing technicians, which are truly the heart and soul of Intel,” she says. Manufacturing technicians typically hold a two-year degree in a STEM discipline and handle regular preventive maintenance. “That’s where a technician would start if they had no experience,” Harper adds.

Another quarter of the 3,000 hires will be engineers, primarily process engineers in disciplines like electrical, mechanical, chemical and computer science engineering. About half of those will hold bachelor’s degrees, and roughly 35 percent will have a masters. Five percent will be a doctorate-level hire.

The final 5 percent of total hires, Harper estimates, will fill support roles in sales, marketing, finance and human resources.

Columbus State President Dr. David Harrison.

Two- and four-year colleges collaborate to build Intel workforce

“We feel like we’re starting from a position of strength,” says David Harrison, president of Columbus State Community College. “Something Columbus State is good at is partnering with companies and industries to build a community infrastructure for long-term growth.”

He points to Honda and other companies with local talent needs in the past. “There’s kind of a family tree now that started with manufacturing,” he says. “Working with the employers, our students were working while going to school, getting hired at a really high-paying job and having a lot of support from both the college and the employer.”

Over 30 companies are involved in the manufacturing pipeline today, he says. Columbus State used the same model for information technology needs, creating a flexible apprenticeship program with companies like Accenture, State Auto and Nationwide.

“Students who didn’t have a career path from Columbus State before are now getting multiple job offers,” he says. “It’s where a lot of the diversity for these companies is coming from.”

Though $50 million sounds like a lot of money, the investment is over 10 years and can take multiple avenues.

“It’s not like any single institution is going to get a transformational investment, but we’re all looking for a way to build a statewide strategy and ecosystem, engaging all 23 community colleges in the state to build out a semiconductor manufacturing ecosystem that will serve both Intel and the supply chain.”

And that ecosystem is already coming to life. For example, Central Ohio Technical College, in collaboration with Intel, recently announced associate degree pathways that could lead to careers with the company.

Dr. Johnson, president of Ohio State University talks about her time as an inventor leading up to her current role.

Kristina Johnson, president of Ohio State University, shares a personal story about her experience with community college technicians.

“When I was an undergraduate at Stanford, I learned about semiconductor processing in labs from technicians that were trained at a local community college,” she says. “They knew how to actually build things and make things and look at yield… Because I grew up in that environment, I learned that it’s a continuum of educational opportunities that these companies need in order to build successful industries.”

What are Ohio’s educational institutions already doing?

Roughly 2,000 Columbus State Community College students have already transferred to OSU as part of the college’s Preferred Pathway program, which guarantees admission.

“[That partnership] is one of the things that attracted Intel to central Ohio to begin with,” says Harrison. “To have Columbus State and Ohio State in such close proximity really gave them confidence that the talent pipeline was going to be in good hands.”

And given the changing nature of work, which has caused many employers to reconsider what formal credentials their jobs require, “That is playing right into our strength—building stackable credentials that are going to help people grow within their careers to meet needs,” Harrison says. “We really feel like Columbus State was purpose-built for this moment.”

Coupled with the existing pipeline from two-year to four-year institutions, OSU is working to scale up its bachelor of science and engineering technology, which centers on process, packaging and systems studies.

BSET is already available at OSU’s Lima and Mansfield campuses and it’s in development in Newark.

“We’re fortunate that we can build on those existing programs,” Johnson says. “A couple of areas for future collaboration would be to develop joint labs. The infrastructure is what gets expensive, and it costs a lot to build out clean rooms and laboratories where you teach students … that any dust can create defects, and therefore, your yield goes down and that costs money.”

In April, Johnson and nine other university presidents, including those at the University of Michigan, Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame, met to form the Midwest Semiconductor Network. This group will focus on workforce and manufacturing, research and innovation, and creating infrastructure for experiential learning.

“We can work together as a network and not have to reinvent the wheel at each university” she says.

Diversity must play an important role.

“One of the opportunities for us is to ensure that students from all backgrounds have a shot at these well-paying jobs at Intel,” Johnson says.

A collaboration between OSU, the city of Columbus, Columbus City Schools and Columbus State, STEAMM Rising (science, technology, engineering, arts, math and medicine), works to grow the innovation pipeline through programs like a two-week summer institution in which teachers get to develop modules and experience hands-on learning that they can bring back to the classroom.

“We’ve got to connect with people from communities that may not have been connected before,” says Harrison. “We know we have structural issues around income inequality and economic mobility, and the ability to reach into neighborhoods that haven’t had access to a path to a six-figure job is something that … has gotten me excited about Intel’s attitude and intelligence toward a diverse workforce.”

Intel plans to increase the number of women in technical roles to 40 percent and double the number of women and minorities in senior roles by 2030.

“They have targeted efforts for people of color, and it aligns directly with what Columbus State has been focused on for the last decade or more. To have an employer partner of the scale that Intel is, who’s also making investments in those spaces, I think can be a transformational moment for the community.”

Intel also plans to tap into the pool of roughly 60,000 veterans who live in Franklin County. “We definitely have a high footprint for veterans, and veterans have comparable skills that work really, really well in our manufacturing technicians,” Harper says.

“It’s a big enough project that everybody can see a role for themselves and everybody needs to play a role,” Johnson says.

Virginia Brown is a freelance writer