On Saturday mornings, 19-year-old Anthony Deary sets his alarm for 5 a.m.
He’s out the door of his Round Rock house an hour later, headed toward Samsung’s hulking 2.3 million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Northeast Austin to work a 12-hour shift.
Deary is an apprentice technician at Samsung. It will take two years to teach him how to maintain the expensive and highly-automated manufacturing equipment that churns out new silicon chips for the South Korea-based electronics company.
As part of a new program, Samsung Austin Semiconductor -- which is the name of Samsung’s business operations in Austin -- is hiring manufacturing technicians right out of high school, putting them through a two-year apprenticeship while paying for them to get an associate’s degree in the Electronics and Advanced Technologies Department at Austin Community College.
Samsung, which employs about 3,000 people in Austin, wants to find and train more manufacturing technicians in Central Texas. These skilled manufacturing jobs don’t require a college degree, and yet Samsung says they struggle to find enough workers to fill them in booming Austin.
“We drain markets very quickly of talent,” said Charmaine Winters, senior director of human resources at Samsung. So the chipmaker decided last year to try recruiting technicians straight out of Central Texas high schools.
Samsung’s apprentice program is highly unusual. Only a handful of other manufacturers in the United States target high school graduates. One of the first was Siemens, which launched its apprentice program for high school students in 2011.
The United States has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Samsung’s apprentice program will help address the skills gap that has played a part in those job losses. This issue, manufacturing experts say, is that as factories have become more technical and automated, employers have a more difficult time finding workers who can operate them.
Fab city no more
In the 1970s, Motorola helped spark Austin’s tech industry when it became the first chipmaker to build a manufacturing facility here. By the mid-1990s, Austin cemented a reputation as a leader when it comes to designing and manufacturing silicon chips used in computing devices. At that time, there were over a half-dozen chip plants sprinkled through Austin. These facilities are often called “fabs.”
But these chip manufacturing jobs peaked in Austin about two decades ago, according to Austin economist Angelos Angelou, when the semiconductor industry employed about 30,000 people in the Austin area. These jobs disappeared as chipmakers began outsourcing their manufacturing work to other companies.
That coincided with a general decline in manufacturing jobs in Austin. Now there are about 55,000 manufacturing jobs in the Central Texas area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While chipmakers such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and Silicon Labs are either headquartered in Austin or have a presence here, only three companies do any chip manufacturing in Central Texas: Samsung, NXP Semiconductors and Cypress Semiconductor.
As a result, there is a smaller pool of skilled manufacturing technicians who know how to run and maintain fab equipment, Winters said. Adding to their recruiting difficulties is that Samsung’s fab has been recently upgraded and makes different, more specialized chips than the other Austin fabs.
“It is becoming more challenging to find good, solid technicians in the area,” Winters said.
That’s even though technicians — a job that doesn’t require a college degree — start at about $16 an hour (roughly $33,000 per year) and can make “upwards of $42 an hour,” or more than $87,000 per year, as a master technician, she said.
“Some of these senior techs and master techs, when they pull in overtime, are easily making six figures,” she said. Samsung employs about 1,100 technicians at its Austin fab.
Samsung’s recruiting dilemmas perfectly illustrate the skills gap manufacturers are facing.
That’s partly because “intelligent, disciplined and motivated” high school students are guided toward universities rather than starting a career or learning a trade, said Harry Moser, founder of the Reshoring Initiative, a nonprofit that encourages companies to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.
Ed Latson, executive director of the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association, said attracting and maintaining talent is the “No. 1 challenge” for manufacturers in Central Texas. With an unemployment rate hovering under 4 percent, manufacturers are competing against other industries for talent.
“The skills at a manufacturing facility have changed in the last 15 years,” Latson added. “Everything is automated or computer-driven and you need somebody with a background in that, or that is at least trainable. You need people that are able to adapt to that environment, and those people aren’t easy to find.”
Recruiting at high schools
A few years ago, Winters hatched the idea of a high school apprenticeship program as a recruiting tool.
She said several high school teachers urged her to consider it now that public high school students can select STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as an educational track and are able to take more vocational classes.
“The opportunities for kids to get into a workforce in a technical field right out of high school and have a company pay for college, that’s something new and different that’s really attractive to students,” said Lisa Windolph, lead engineering teacher at McNeil High School in Round Rock.
There were some legal hurdles to overcome first. For instance, Samsung can’t hire students still in high school because federal rules for this type of job dictate a minimum age of 18. So the program became focused on students who had just graduated high school.
Last spring, Winters pitched the idea to various high schools in Austin and Round Rock school districts, and held “parent’s night” meetings to answer questions about how it would work.
High school graduates start with a nine-week summer internship program, followed by the two-year apprenticeship, while also obtaining an associate’s degree at ACC. Afterward, a job offer from Samsung is not guaranteed but is very likely, Winters said. A student can also leave the program at any time.
“We’re not looking for the kids who are 4.0 students,” Winters said, noting that they prefer students who are enrolled in the STEM tracks. “I’m not looking for the kid that is super smart that can go anywhere. I’m looking for the kid whose parents may not be able to afford this, or might be a first-time in college student, or might just not know what they want to be when they grow up.”
Samsung enrolled nine high school graduates in its summer internship program, with two deciding to stay on for the full apprentice program. They plan to recruit more students this spring.
Getting students interested in this program might prove challenging at first, one area high school teacher said.
Marie Isokpunwu, who teaches physics and engineering design at Round Rock’s Cedar Ridge High School, said most of the students enrolled in her school’s STEM program want to become engineers and are set on getting four-year degrees. She says only a handful of Cedar Ridge students expressed an interest in the Samsung program last year, with three going in for interviews.
‘It’s a great opportunity’
Deary first heard about the Samsung apprenticeship program when he was a senior at Cedar Ridge High School. He was planning to attend the University of Houston to major in engineering.
But the Samsung apprenticeship captured his attention because he was worried about paying for college, and the amount of debt he and his parents would have to take on.
The pricetag for one semester at the University of Houston is nearly $6,000.
“I always talked to (my parents) about how expensive college was, and I don’t want to make them take out loans and stuff,” said Deary. So he decided against the University of Houston and went with Samsung.
Deary said he likes that he is able to get an associate’s degree in electrical engineering for free from Austin Community College, and that he can start his career right away. He said he still plans to eventually get a bachelor’s degree.
He works a 12-hour shift on Thursday through Saturday, he said, and takes ACC classes the rest of the time. His actual job involves handling and ordering parts and tools, analyzing technical data and filling out work orders.
“When you are at work, everything you do has an operation and a manual to it,” Deary said. “You don’t need to be extremely educated to pick up on something like that.”
All those weekend shifts mean that Deary isn’t exactly living the same college experience as many of his friends. “Sometimes I wish I could know what the dorm life is like,” Deary said, but said he’s happy having extra cash and no debt.
“I basically just got thrown straight into my career, which I thought was great,” Deary said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
Soon students like Deary might have more career choices beyond Samsung.
Latson said the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association is trying to pull off its own internship program to steer students toward work at small and medium-sized manufacturers. The plan is to recruit high school graduates and college students.
“We hope to get it off the ground in 2017,” he said.
Interested in learning more about Samsung’s apprentice program? Email Melanie Flowers at email@example.com.