March 11, 2013

In the chips on payday?

By: Larry Rulison

Source: Times Union

The Capital Region's growing high-tech sector isn't handing out golden tickets like Willy Wonka.

When nearly 800 people show up at a job fair at the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, it's easy to believe that high-paying, meaningful jobs await them inside — an adult version of a lifetime supply of chocolate.

But without an advanced degree or previous experience, you won't be getting a high-tech job that pays $100,000 or more overnight.

If you are hard-working and ambitious, willing to go back to school — or in some cases take a pay cut — starting salaries in the tech sector are typically higher than those for similar jobs at more traditional companies.

That's because companies in the high-tech sector enjoy high profit margins and face fierce competition from rivals for employees.

But these higher wages and better benefits aren't just given to anyone willing with a resume. You have to earn every penny, experts say, and be willing to adapt.

"It's not for everybody," said Phil White, dean of the School of Engineering and Industrial Technologies at Hudson Valley Community College, which runs a two-year semiconductor manufacturing program. "Not everybody enjoys that environment. It's a career."

White — who says tech firms keep salary information closely guarded because of the competition for workers — says graduates of Hudson Valley's program might expect to earn a starting salary between $40,000 and $45,000 as a clean room technician, whereas salaries at a more traditional manufacturer could be as low as $30,000.

In fact, White notes, graduates of Hudson Valley's semiconductor program might expect salaries similar to the school's own entry-level faculty that have had six years of schooling, including a master's degree.

But White cautions not everyone has what it takes to get through the program, which loses about half its roughly 45 students in the second year, when it's heavy on math, physics, chemistry and lab work.

"It's a very rigorous program," White said. "So much is up to you."

Of course, engineers and managers with industry experience are well-paid in the local high-tech field, especially the semiconductor industry, which makes computer chips.

GlobalFoundries, which employs 2,000 people at its Fab 8 computer chip factory in Malta and could add another 4,500 jobs by 2020 as it expands, says engineers earn starting pay around $95,000, while top managers get $140,000 or more.

At the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, which GlobalFoundries and others use to do cutting-edge research, senior engineers get paid between $80,000 and $120,000, while a top scientist or researcher can pull in more than $200,000 a year.

But at both locations, which are about a 30-minute drive from one another on the Northway, starting pay for those without an advanced degree or even a four-year degree is between $30,000 and $60,000, depending on previous experience and training.

GlobalFoundries spokesman Travis Bullard said Fab 8 has openings in its facilities department for electricians, pipe fitters and other laborers.

"Although most of our positions require at least an associate's degree, a lot of people don't realize that many of our jobs do not require an advanced degree," Bullard said.

Carla Delgado is a perfect example of someone who got a job in the local semiconductor industry without any experience. Delgado has worked at the NanoCollege for three-and-a-half years cleaning the clean rooms in which the school and its tenants such as IBM and others do high-end computer chip research.

In her native Puerto Rico, Delgado worked in the court system, but when she moved to Florida a while back she cleaned hotel rooms because her English wasn't so great. After relocating to Albany four years ago, she worked at Hotel Indigo in Colonie before getting a job at the NanoCollege.

Now Delgado, 31, is helping to get the new NanoFab X clean room ready. The building will be home to the new $4.8 billion Global 450 Consortium working on creating chip factories of the future.

Delgado says she earns more than she ever did cleaning hotel rooms — even when she was lucky enough to get tips.

"It's awesome, absolutely, it's very good," Delgado said. "It's totally different here."

Cohoes native Rebecca LaForest, 28, actually took a pay cut when she left her job as a middle-school math teacher in Yonkers to take a workstation operator job at the NanoCollege last fall. But she's taking graduate courses at the school, and eventually hopes to work in solar energy research.

LaForest says she already interviewed for other job opportunities at a recent job fair at the NanoCollege, something she says is encouraged. "The opportunities are already available to move up," she said. "My salary is lower, but I don't expect it to stay there."

NanoCollege spokesman Steve Janack says that is a hallmark of the semiconductor industry.

"The industry is very keen on bringing people in, training them and giving them the opportunity to advance in their careers," Janack said. "We're always looking to do that."