Military vets: Ready for the tech industries

Zachary Gray, managing director of Pennsylvania State University's Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization, explains the program created to teach nano and microtechnology skills to veterans. (Photo: Event Photography of North America Corp.)

When it comes to the qualities nanotechnology and microtechnology industries look for in their workers, veterans fit the bill.

They show up for work on time, have a strong work ethic, are disciplined, and possess critical thinking and leadership skills. They follow standard operating procedures, work well in teams and can troubleshoot.

These skills transfer so well to the nano and micro technology industries that Pennsylvania State University created a program to teach these technologies to veterans using remote live-streamed lectures and hands-on training in cleanroom laboratories at Penn State and four other research universities across the country, said Zachary Gray, managing director of Penn State’s Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization. Penn State has hosted the Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge (NACK) Resource Center is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Resource Center for nanotechnology workforce development for about two decades. 

Now in its second year, the intensive 12-week course is offered free to veterans, their spouses, and dependents who are enrolled at community colleges.

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“The reason industry supports this type of training is hands-on experience,” Gray said at a session during the 2023 Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators’ Conference in Washington, D.C. The American Association of Community Colleges is hosting the conference with National Science Foundation (NSF) support.

Noting cleanroom laboratories are “extremely expensive,” Gray said “that is why the resource-sharing model with universities sharing their tools, their equipment, their space with community colleges is vital.”

“The main reason veterans are taking this program is because they want to enter the semiconductor workforce,” he added.

Other locations

The five-year program is funded with an ATE grant from NSF through 2026. At that point, the expectation is that the partner community colleges will take over and non-veterans will be able to enroll, Gray said.

The community colleges and their university partners are:

Additionally, Gray said, there are plans to apply for a supplemental NSF grant next year that would enable the program to expand to Ohio, where Intel Corp., announced it expects to invest more than $20 million to build two semiconductor chip factories that could create 3,000 jobs. Texas, New York and Minnesota are other states where the program could expand, Gray said.

Partners’ roles

The Penn State program includes industry partners who helped shape the curriculum to their workforce needs; community colleges who recruit, advise and mentor the students; and research universities, who provide access to their laboratories.

Penn State instructors teach the courses that are simultaneously livestreamed via Zoom to community colleges in Arizona, California, Georgia and Virginia, explained Gray and Penn State assistant teaching professor Vishal Saravade. Penn State has a partnership with 12 community colleges in Pennsylvania that allows community college students to take Penn State courses at a community college tuition.

While veterans bring strong skills from their military experience, they often lack skills in the nano and micro technologies, so instructors have to tailor the curriculum not to overwhelm them at first, Saravade said. Those who successfully complete the program receive certificates indicating they meet nano and micro technology industry standards, he said.

There was a “fairly high drop-out rate” among the approximate 40 students who enrolled in the first class last spring, Gray said. Some were unaware of the intense 40-hour week commitment and others lacked the basic algebra and science background, he said. There currently are about 27 students enrolled nationally and, to date, all are on track to complete the semester.

About the Author

Kathryn Marchocki
Kathryn Marchocki is an award-winning journalist based in New England.
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