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Tech Companies Sharpen Recruiting Skills as Competition for Technical Talent Widens

David Lammers

Within the United States, it is not all about competition from Apple and Google. The huge oil and gas industry has been hiring engineers who might normally end up in the chip industry.

As companies like Apple, Google and Exxon step up their own recruiting efforts, attracting technical talent to semiconductor manufacturing is becoming increasingly challenging. The situation is compounded as young engineers from Asia become more likely to return to jobs in their home countries after earning diplomas from U.S. universities.

C.P. Chang, director of university relations at Applied Materials, said compared to 30 years ago, not as many students are interested in process technology, device physics, and related subjects. “Fewer top-notch students are focusing on the hard sciences, which makes it a little more difficult to get the best people into the entry-level jobs in the semiconductor business. There can be quick [product] wins at startups, compared with trying to make something like chipmaking equipment that takes a team of people quite a bit of time. I’m not saying doing software is easy, but the learning curve for young people to get very good at it is much faster,” Chang said.

Dan Allen Medlin, talent acquisition leader at Samsung Semiconductor Austin [Texas], said “Over the past 15 years, I’ve never not  said the war for talent was intense, though I don’t know that it is any harder today than when I started. But that is why we recruiters love it, and find the competition very enjoyable.”

In a sense, identifying experienced talent has become easier as people use LinkedIn and other public sites to broaden their networks. Reaching out to an engineer based in Singapore is as easy as to one living in Dallas, he said. 

Medlin said Samsung Semiconductor Austin might see less pressure from, say, Google or Facebook, compared with a West Coast-based company. “The biggest pressure here is the allure of the oil and gas industry down in Houston. We have lost a few engineers that way. And any young person coming out of a university in this area with a degree in electrical or mechanical engineering – our bread and butter -- they have options” in the high-paying oil and gas industry.

Greg Sajbel, chairman of the Austin committee of the SEMI trade association, said “you might not think the oil and gas industry would hire that many EEs or computer scientists. But what they basically do is go out and pound on the ground, and analyze data coming from the geologic formations underneath. That data gathering takes some pretty sophisticated electronic systems, big server farms and some talented engineers.”

Sajbel’s employer, MKS Instruments Corporation (Andover, Massachusetts), sees vigorous competition from companies such as Exxon, Schlumberger and Halliburton, both in hiring new graduates and in retaining experienced talent. One answer, he said, is to be more flexible, providing young employees with interesting challenges and paying close attention to their feedback in team meetings.

Silicon Valley has always been a tough, competitive hiring environment, compounded by the high cost-of-living. Housing in San Jose is twice that of Austin for example, according to Payscale.com. But many engineers see a California posting, after they have gained experience in the Midwest or elsewhere, as a way to boost their careers, said Sheryl Hicks, human resources manager at Watlow Electric Manufacturing Corporation, a St. Louis-based manufacturer of thermal systems used widely in semiconductor manufacturing. “We utilize salary surveying data from the national and local markets to help determine salary ranges that are competitive,” she said. “The individuals that have moved have been promotions to the next level of contribution on the career path model. So between the promotion and understanding the salary range information, we have been able to offer competitive wages in the new location.” Watlow, a family-owned company with 2,300 employees worldwide, has close relations with several of the best Midwestern engineering schools. Unlike many companies, Watlow often hires fresh graduates and trains them on the job.

Where the Jobs Are

As more fabs are built outside of the United States, engineers increasingly follow those opportunities, even though Chang said many engineers would prefer to live in the United States. “While the government has been doing a few things to make it easier in the past few years, it is still a harsh challenge to bring back high-tech talent” to the United States, where visas and green cards are relatively hard to get.

Applied Materials and other employers have been stepping up efforts to contact students early, becoming more systematic in their approach to identifying students. Chang’s job involves working closely with various consortia, including the Semiconductor Research Corporation, which sponsor semiconductor-related research projects at many universities.

Applied Materials is “being more active in building relations with universities and certain targeted professors. Joining consortia helps in part because it makes it easier to talk to good students that potentially can be hired by us. It is not a breakthrough solution, but it gives us an advantage and helps our recruiters,” Chang said.

James Moyne, an associate research scientist who works with students in the mechanical engineering and electrical engineering departments at the University of Michigan, said many of the graduate students at Michigan remain interested in manufacturing-oriented jobs. The university has a $20 million clean room, and much of the Federal government-supported research budget there is devoted to materials and manufacturing processes, rather than software-centric R&D. It is the computer science students, Moyne said, who tend to go to Google and other software-oriented employers.

Moyne said his students are learning to apply data analysis techniques to control systems. “Last year, my students ended up working at companies such as Applied, Cisco, Rockwell Automation, and the automobile companies. None went to Google.”

However, many of the graduate students are from China, Taiwan, and South Korea, where job opportunities have improved markedly. “It used to be that students came from other countries and wanted to stay. Now they come to the University of Michigan and then by and large, they just want to go back to their home countries.”

Professional Development Programs Help

Janet Teshima, a geologist by training, became expert at using electron microscopy to study geologic samples. That led her to work for many years at FEI Corp. in Portland, Oregon, where she now runs a startup company, LatticeGear LLC. She participates in a SEMI-led program to expose university students to local employers. These professional development programs are not job fairs per se, though the one-day programs involve getting perhaps 30 to 60 students from several Portland-based universities to meet with engineers from 8-10 companies.

Companies “know they have to get ahead of the game” by meeting students before they graduate, and Teshima said many students, with the Great Recession fresh in their memories, are eager to hear from “real engineers who talk about their real-life stories.”

Teshima said there are still many companies which restrict much of their hiring to experienced engineers with particular skill sets. In Portland, Intel is one of the few companies willing to hire new graduates and provide them with job training, she said.

The SEMI Foundation also runs a series of programs for high-school students, called High Tech U, aimed at exposing them to the work that people do in the chip industry. Applied Materials chairman emeritus Jim Morgan recently issued a challenge, asking for matching grants to support SEMI Foundation initiatives aimed at creating a base of students interested in semiconductor manufacturing. At SEMICON West in July, Morgan committed to pledging up to $500,000 to the SEMI Foundation and invited others in the high-tech industry to join him in contributing in blocks of $50,000 or more.

A student at Stony Point High School in Round Rock, Texas, participates in the SEMI High Tech U program at Samsung Austin Semiconductor. The students were exposed to careers in chip manufacturing in the program, partly by simulating the layering process of microchip manufacturing. (Photo courtesy of the SEMI Foundation)

Veterans Consider Chips, Oil & Gas

With fabs becoming increasingly automated, skilled technicians who can keep equipment up-and-running are also in high demand. Medlin said Samsung has had great success hiring military veterans who have learned to maintain helicopters, airplanes, and ships. “Veterans have a lot of experience that we can gain from. At Samsung we have learned over time which people from which service branches, and in what roles, have the best transferrable skills. Once they get here to Samsung, we know exactly what training they need to get them up and running.”

Many service members with technical skills have multiple job offers when they leave active duty, said Curtis Geroy, who recruits ex-military to work at Applied Materials, which currently employs more than 600 ex-military. As the military downsizes more soldiers and airmen with technical skills are entering the civilian job market.

“Today’s military is so technical, a lot of people are coming out with the skill sets we need. Their technical skills do transfer into our company very well,” said Geroy, himself a veteran of the U.S. Marines, who served as a technician maintaining F-18 fighter planes. But companies such as Applied often are competing with companies in the oil and gas industry. “When we are reaching out to people, the first challenge is that 99 percent of them have no idea what Applied Materials does. And then we find that the energy companies, where business is booming, are very much into hiring people from the military. And they pay very well,” he added.

Applied wins its share of new workers among veterans. “Right now, the overall number of candidates is sufficient.” Applied currently has 40-50 technician openings in upstate New York, but filling those jobs often depends on the willingness of candidates to live in that region.

With people leaving the military, location is often a paramount concern, especially for veterans with children. “It might be that they live in Washington State, and we want them to come to Silicon Valley. But if we can offer them something in one of their preferred locations they are attracted to Applied because we offer jobs with a promising, long-term career-path.”

Dave Lammers
is an independent technology journalist based in Austin, TX.