Press "Enter" to skip to content

Semiconductor industry overlooked in SE Michigan

One Ann Arbor higher education institution is doing its part to grow the semiconductor workforce here. It’s not Washtenaw Community College, but at least someone’s working on it. The University of Michigan offers a 10-week program that teaches students -among other things – how to make semiconductors.

Operating from the Lurie Nanofabrication Facility, the program accepts a limited number of students each summer – no prior experience necessary. If you’re going to make semiconductors, you’re going to do that in a clean room. There’s a lot of interest in workers who are clean-room ready, largely because the country is gearing up to produce its own semiconductors.

You can thank the pandemic for that strategy. Manufacturers of everything from ordinary electronics to cars to sensitive military equipment found out first-hand how dependent they are on semiconductors that come from far-flung places. And just how little they can do without them.

I don’t know how much UM spent on the Lurie Nanofabrication Facility, but I do know that Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, NY is building a clean room on its campus for $10M. Several community colleges in Arizona also have clean rooms on campus where they train technicians to work in the industry. Median pay is about $30 per hour. And not surprisingly, there’s a wait list to get into the program. Because Arizona has invested so heavily in semiconductor training facilities, it will receive about half of the funds allocated to the CHIPS and Science Act.

WCC also proposes to spend $10M on a new building on campus, but the building has virtually no academic value. As designed, the proposed building doesn’t even contain any faculty offices. The State of Michigan agreed to provide some funding for the building.

Feds will invest in semiconductor industry

Its limited academic use means that Washtenaw County taxpayers will end up footing the bill for a building that doesn’t expand WCC’s capacity to deliver instruction. Additionally, it won’t make much of a contribution to Washtenaw County’s economy. Yet, the taxpayers get to pay for it.

For $10M we could have a clean room facility that trains technicians to work in the semiconductor industry. That facility could attract semiconductor manufacturers to Washtenaw County. Attracting chip manufacturers to Washtenaw County could bring jobs that pay $60K-$70K per year. And the State of Michigan would pay for half of it!

But that’s not WCC’s plan. And the Trustees that we elected to oversee the $70M or so we’re sending to WCC are perfectly fine with that. In fact, at one point, they authorized the sale of bonds to fund the construction of the “Advanced Transportation Center.” Those bonds, which the Washtenaw County taxpayers did not agree to authorize or repay, will require WCC to raise student tuition and/or fees, and consume taxpayers’ resources for a project that returns virtually nothing to either the students or the county.

This wouldn’t be the first wasteful, pointless plan that a community college administration came up with. But we elect Trustees to ask hard questions and make decisions that advance the best interests of the residents of Washtenaw County.

As a county resident, which building would you rather pay for? The one that costs you $5M but brings in millions more in federal investments, attracts employers that make high-demand products and offer high-paying jobs, or the one that costs you $8M, has minimal academic value and offers no economic return?

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight , via Flickr