Microelectronics technicians work in research laboratories assisting the engineering staff to develop and construct prototype and custom-designed microchips. Microchips, often called simply chips, are tiny but extremely complex electronic devices that control the operations of many kinds of communications equipment, consumer products, industrial controls, aerospace guidance systems, and medical electronics. The process of manufacturing chips is often called fabrication. About 182,000 people work as electrical and electronics engineering technicians.
Microelectronics Technician Career History
The science of electronics is only about 100 years old. Yet electronics has had an enormous impact on the way people live. Without electronics, things like television, computers, X-ray machines, and radar would not be possible. Today, nearly every area of industry, manufacturing, entertainment, health care, and communications uses electronics to improve the quality of people’s lives. This article you are reading, for example, was created by people using electronic equipment, from the writing of each article to the design, layout, and production of the book itself.
The earliest electronic systems depended on electron vacuum tubes to conduct current. But these devices were too bulky and too slow for many of their desired tasks. In the early 1950s, the introduction of microelectronics— that is, the design and production of integrated circuits and products using integrated circuits—allowed engineers and scientists to design faster and faster and smaller and smaller electronic devices. Initially developed for military equipment and space technology, integrated circuits have made possible such everyday products as personal computers, microwave ovens, and digital video disc players and are found in nearly every electronic product that people use today.
Integrated circuits are miniaturized electronic systems. Integrated circuits include many interconnected electronic components such as transistors, capacitors, and resistors, produced on or in a single thin slice of a semiconductor material. Semiconductors are so named because they are substances with electrical properties somewhere between those of conductors and insulators. The semiconductor used most frequently in microchips is silicon, so microchips are also sometimes called silicon chips. Often smaller than a fingernail, chips may contain multiple layers of complex circuitry stacked on top of each other. The word integrated refers to the way the circuitry is blended into the chip during the fabrication process.
The reliance on electronic technology has created a need for skilled personnel to design, construct, test, and repair electronic components and products. The growing uses of microelectronics has created a corresponding demand for technicians specially trained to assist in the design and development of new applications of electronic technology.
Microelectronics Technician Job Description
Microelectronics technicians typically assist in the development of prototypes, or new kinds, of electronic components and products. They work closely with electronics engineers, who design the components, build and test them, and prepare the component or product for large-scale manufacture. Such components usually require the integrated operation of several or many different types of chips.
Microelectronics technicians generally work from a schematic received from the design engineer. The schematic contains a list of the parts that will be needed to construct the component and the layout that the technician will follow. The technician gathers the parts and prepares the materials to be used. Following the schematic, the technician constructs the component and then uses a variety of sophisticated, highly sensitive equipment to test the component’s performance. One such test measures the component’s burn-in time. During this test the component is kept in continuous operation for a long period of time, and the component and its various features are subjected to a variety of tests to be certain the component will stand up to extended use.
If the component fails to function according to its required specifications, the microelectronics technician must be able to troubleshoot the design, locating where the component has failed, and replace one part for a new or different part. Test results are reported to the engineering staff, and the technician may be required to help in evaluating the results and preparing reports based on these evaluations. In many situations, the microelectronics technician will work closely with the engineer to solve any problems arising in the component’s operation and design.
After the testing period, the microelectronics technician is often responsible for assisting in the technical writing of the component’s specifications. These specifications are used for integrating the component into new or redesigned products or for developing the process for the component’s large-scale manufacture. The microelectronics technician helps to develop the production system for the component and will also write reports on the component’s functions, uses, and performance.
“You really need to have good communication skills,” says Kyle Turner, a microelectronics technician at White Oak Semi-Conductor in Virginia. “Not only do you have to let others know what you mean and explain yourself, you often have to train new employees in the specifics of our product.”
Microelectronics technicians perform many of the same functions of electronics technicians, but generally work only in the development laboratory. More experienced technicians may assume greater responsibilities. They work closely with the engineering staff to develop layout and assembly procedures and to use their own knowledge of microelectronics to suggest changes in circuitry or installation. Often they are depended upon to simplify the assembly or maintenance requirements. After making any changes, they test the performance of the component, analyze the results, and suggest and perform further modifications to the component’s design. Technicians may fabricate new parts using various machine tools, supervise the installation of the new component, or become involved in training and supervising other technical personnel.
Some microelectronics technicians specialize in the fabrication and testing of semiconductors and integrated circuits. These technicians are usually called semiconductor development technicians. They are involved in the development of prototype chips, following the direction of engineering staff, and perform the various steps required for making and testing new integrated circuits.
Microelectronics Technician Career Requirements
The advanced technology involved in microelectronics means that post-high school education or training is a requirement for entering the field. You should consider enrolling in a two-year training program at a community college or vocational training facility and expect to earn a certificate or an associate’s degree. Like most microelectronics technicians, Kyle Turner completed a two-year degree in electronics as well as an extensive on-the-job training program.
High school students interested in microelectronics can begin their preparation by taking courses such as algebra and geometry. If you have taken science courses, especially chemistry and physics, you will have a better chance to enter an apprenticeship program and you will be more prepared for postsecondary educational programs.
“Math skills are really important,” says Turner. “You have to be able to take accurate measurements and make good calculations.”
Knowledge of proper grammar and spelling is necessary for writing reports, and you should also develop your reading comprehension. Taking industrial classes, such as metalworking, wood shop, auto shop, and machine shop, and similar courses in plastics, electronics, and construction techniques will be helpful. Another area of study is computer science, and you would do well to seek experience in computer technology.
Few employers will hire people for microelectronics technician positions who do not have advanced training. Although some low-skilled workers may advance into technician jobs, employers generally prefer to hire people with higher education. Technician and associate’s degree programs are available at many community colleges and at public and private vocational training centers and schools. Many technical schools are located where the microelectronics industry is particularly active. These schools often have programs tailored specifically for the needs of companies in their area. Community colleges offer a greater degree of flexibility in that they are able to keep up with the rapid advances and changes in technology and can redesign their courses and programs to meet the new requirements. You can expect to study in such areas as mathematics, including algebra, geometry, and calculus; physics; and electronics engineering technology. Many schools will require you to take courses in English composition, as well as fulfill other course requirements in the humanities and social sciences.
Other methods of entry are three- and four-year apprenticeship programs. These programs generally involve on-the-job training by the employer. You can locate apprenticeship opportunities through your high school guidance office, in listings in local newspapers, or by contacting local manufacturers.
Military service is also an excellent method for beginning an electronics career. The military is one of the largest users of electronics technology and offers training and educational programs to enlisted personnel in many areas of electronics.
Finally, the rapid advancements in microelectronics may make it desirable or even necessary for you to continue to take courses, receive training, and study various trade journals throughout your career.
Certification or Licensing
Certification is not mandatory in most areas of electronics (although technicians working with radio-transmitting devices are required to be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission), but voluntary certification may prove useful in locating work and in increasing your pay and responsibilities. The International Society of Certified Electronics Technicians (ISCET) offers certification testing to technicians with four years of experience or schooling, as well as associate-level testing of basic electronics for beginning technicians. ISCET also offers a variety of study and training materials to help you prepare for the certification tests.
Microelectronics technicians are involved in creating prototypes—that is, new and untested technology. This aspect of the field brings special responsibilities for carrying out assembly and testing procedures: These must be performed with a high degree of precision. When assembling a new component, for example, you must be able to follow the design engineer’s specifications and instructions exactly. Similar diligence and attention to detail are necessary when following the different procedures for testing the new components. An understanding of the underlying technology is important.
Exploring Microelectronics Technician Career
You can begin exploring this field by getting involved in science clubs and working on electronics projects at home. Any part-time experience repairing electronic equipment will give you exposure to the basics of electronics.
You can find many resources for electronics experiments and projects in your school or local library or on the Internet. Summer employment in any type of electronics will be useful. Talking with someone who works in the field may help you narrow your focus to one particular area of electronics.
Many of the 182,000 electrical and electronics engineering technicians employed in the United States work in the computers, electronics, and communications fields. Because these fields are geographically concentrated in California, Texas, and Massachusetts, many electronics technician jobs are located in these areas. There are positions available elsewhere, but many technicians relocate to work in these concentrated areas. Some electronics technicians are self-employed, some work for large corporations, and others work in government-related jobs.
Most schools provide job placement services to students completing their degree program. Many offer on-the-job training as a part of the program. An internship or other real-life experience is desirable but not necessary. Many companies have extensive on-site training programs.
Newspapers and trade journals are full of openings for people working in electronics, and some companies recruit new hires directly on campus. Government employment offices are also good sources when looking for job leads.
Microelectronics technicians who choose to continue their education can expect to increase their responsibilities and be eligible to advance to supervisory and managerial positions.
Microelectronics technicians may also desire to enter other, more demanding areas of microelectronics, such as semiconductor development and engineering. Additional education may be necessary; engineers will be required to hold at least a four-year degree in electronics engineering.
Earning the certified electronics technician designation from the International Society of Certified Electronics Technicians may be part of the requirement for advancement in certain companies.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual earnings of electrical and electronics engineering technicians were $47,140 in 2004. Salaries ranged from less than $29,050 to more than $69,090. Median annual earnings of technicians who worked in the semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing industry were $43,540 in 2004. Those in managerial or supervisory positions earn higher salaries, ranging between $45,000 and $75,000 per year. Wage rates vary greatly, according to skill level, type of employer, and location. Most employers offer some fringe benefits, including paid holidays and vacations, sick leave, and life and health insurance.
Microelectronics technicians generally work a 40-hour week, although they may be assigned to different shifts or be required to work weekends and holidays. Overtime and holiday pay can usually be expected in such circumstances. The work setting is extremely clean, well lighted, and dust free.
Microelectronics technicians have many duties, and this requires them to be flexible yet focused as they perform their duties. They have to be exact and precise in their work no matter what they’re doing, whether building an electronic component, running the tests, or recording the data. The fact that each day is often very different from the one before it is an aspect of the job that many technicians find appealing.
“One of the best things about the job is that it’s always changing. We’re always trying to make a better product, reduce cycle time, make it smaller or cheaper,” says Kyle Turner. “You’re always learning because it changes like crazy.”
Microelectronics Technician Career Outlook
Jobs in the electronics industry are expected to grow as fast as the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This is because of increasing competition within the industry and the rapid technological advances that characterize the electronics industry. Electronics is a growing industry, and the use of electronic technology will become more and more important to every aspect of people’s lives. This in turn will create a demand for workers with the skills and training to sustain the industry’s growth. In addition, as more and more manufacturers adapt electronic technology to their products and manufacturing processes, the need for skilled personnel will also increase.
The increasing reliability and durability of electronic technology, however, will have some effect on the need for technicians. Similarly, increasing imports of microelectronics products, components, and technology may represent a decrease in production in this country, which will in turn decrease the numbers of microelectronics technicians needed here. Additionally, the use of advanced technologies, such as computer-aided design and drafting and computer simulation, will improve worker productivity and limit employment growth. Nevertheless, the government will continue to account for a large part of the demand for microelectronics components, technology, and personnel.