Semiconductor technicians are highly skilled workers who test new kinds of semiconductor devices being designed for use in many kinds of modern electronic equipment. They may also test samples of devices already in production to assess production techniques. They help develop and evaluate the test equipment used to gather information about the semiconductor devices. Working under the direction provided by engineers in research laboratory settings, they assist in the design and planning for later production or help to improve production yields. There are approximately 45,000 semiconductor technicians employed in the United States.
History of Semiconductor Technician Career
Semiconductors and devices utilizing them are found in nearly every electronic product made today, from complicated weapons systems and space technology to personal computers, videocassette recorders, and programmable coffeemakers. The manufacturing of semiconductors and microelectronics devices requires the efforts of a variety of people, from the engineers who design them, to the technicians who process, construct, and test them.
Although the word semiconductor is often used to refer to microchips or integrated circuits, a semiconductor is actually the basic material of these devices. Semiconductor materials are so called because they can be switched to act with properties between that of an insulator, which does not conduct electrical current, and that of a true conductor of electrical current, such as metal.
Silicon is the most common material used as a semiconductor. Other semiconductor materials may be gallium arsenide, cadmium sulfide, and selenium sulfide. Doping, or treating, these materials with substances such as aluminum, arsenic, boron, and phosphorous gives them conducting properties. By applying these substances according to a specifically designed layout, engineers and technicians construct the tiny electronic devices—transistors, capacitors, and resistors—of an integrated circuit. A microchip no larger than a fingernail may contain many thousands of these devices.
The Job of Semiconductor Technicians
There are many steps that occur in processing semiconductors into integrated circuits. The technicians involved in these processes are called semiconductor development technicians and semiconductor process technicians. They may be involved in several or many of the steps of semiconductor manufacturing, depending on where they work. Often, semiconductor technicians function as a link between the engineering staff and the production staff in the large-scale manufacturing of semiconductor products.
The making of semiconductors begins with silicon. The silicon must be extremely pure in order to be of use. The silicon used for semiconductors is heated in a furnace and formed into cylinder rods between one and six inches in diameter and three or more feet in length. These rods are smoothed and polished until they are perfectly round. They are then sliced into wafers that are between one-quarter and one-half millimeter in thickness. Then the wafers are processed, by etching, polishing, heat-treating, and lapping, to produce the desired dimensions and surface finish. After the wafers are tested, measured, and inspected for any defects, they are coated with a photosensitive substance called a photoresist.
The engineering staff and the technicians assigned to assist them prepare designs for the layout of the microchip. This work is generally done using a computer-aided design (CAD) system. The large, completed design is then miniaturized as a photomask when it is applied to the wafer. The photomask is placed over the wafer and the photoresist is developed, much like film in a camera, with ultraviolet light, so that the layout of the microchip is reproduced many times on the same wafer. This work takes place in a specially equipped clean room, or laboratory, that is kept completely free of dust and other impurities. During the miniaturization process, the tiniest speck of dust will ruin the reproduction of the layout onto the wafer.
Next, the wafer is doped with the substances that will give it the necessary conducting properties. Technicians follow the layout, like a road map, when adding these substances. The proper combinations of materials create the various components of the integrated circuit. When this process is complete, the wafer is tested by computerized equipment that can test the many thousands of components in a matter of seconds. Many of the integrated circuits on the wafer will not function properly, and these are marked and discarded. After testing, the wafer is cut up into its individual chips.
The chips are then packaged by placing them in a casing usually made of plastic or ceramic, which also contains metal leads for connecting the microchip into the electronic circuitry of the device for which it will be used. It is this package that is usually referred to as a chip or semiconductor.
Semiconductor process technicians are generally responsible for the fabrication and processing of the semiconductor wafer. Semiconductor development technicians usually assist with the basic design and development of rough sketches of a prototype chip; they may be involved in transferring the layout to the wafer and in assembling and testing the semiconductor. Both types of technicians gather and evaluate data on the semiconductor, wafer, or chip. They are responsible for ensuring that each step of the process precisely meets test specifications, and also for identifying flaws and problems in the material and design. Technicians may also assist in designing and building new test equipment, and in communicating test data and production instructions for large-scale manufacture. Technicians may also be responsible for maintaining the equipment and for training operators on its use.
Semiconductor Technician Career Requirements
The nature of the microelectronics industry, in which technological advances are continuous and rapid, means that some form of higher education, whether in a twoyear or four-year program, is a must. An early interest in and excitement for electronics and computers is a good indicator of someone who might be interested in this career.
Math and science courses, as well as classes in computers and computer science, are requirements for students wishing to enter the semiconductor and microelectronics field. Physics and chemistry will help you understand many of the processes involved in developing and fabricating semiconductors and semiconductor components. Strong communications skills are also very important.
Technician jobs in microelectronics and semiconductor technology require at least an associate’s degree in electronics or electrical engineering or technology. Students may attend a two-year program at a community college or vocational school. Students interested in a career at the engineering level should consider studying for a bachelor’s degree. The trend toward greater specialization within the industry may make a bachelor’s degree more desirable over an associate’s degree in the future.
An electronics engineering program will include courses in electronics theory, as well as math, science, and English courses. Students can expect to study such subjects as the principle and models of semiconductor devices; physics for solid-state electronics; solid-state theory; introduction to VLSI systems; and basic courses in computer organization, electromagnetic fundamentals, digital and analog laboratories, and the design of circuits and active networks. Companies will also provide additional training on the specific equipment and software they use. Many companies also offer training programs and educational opportunities to employees to increase their skills and their responsibilities.
Courses are available at many community and junior colleges, which may be more flexible in their curriculum and better able to keep up with technological advances than vocational training schools. The latter, however, will often have programs geared specifically to the needs of the employers in their area and may have job placement programs and relationships with the different companies available as well. If you are interested in these schools, you should do some research to determine whether the training offered is thorough and that the school has a good placement record. Training institutes should also be accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (http://www.accsc.org/).
Military service may also provide a strong background in electronics. In addition, the tuition credits available to military personnel will be helpful when continuing your education.
Certification or Licensing
Certification is not mandatory, 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 at various levels and fields of electronics. The ISCET also offers a variety of study and training material to help prepare for the certification tests.
A thorough understanding of semiconductors, electronics, and the production process is necessary for semiconductor technicians. Investigative and research skills, and a basic knowledge of computers and computer programs are important for the prospective semiconductor technician. “You have to be very patient and not easily discouraged to work in this industry,” says Jan Gilliam, a semiconductor technician at Advanced Micro Devices, located in Austin, Texas. “You have to really focus on the goal while paying close attention to details.”
Exploring Semiconductor Technician Career
You can develop your interests in computers and microelectronics while in school. Most high schools will be unable to keep up with the rapid advances in electronics technology, and you will need to read and explore on your own. Joining extracurricular clubs in computers or electronics will give you an opportunity for hands-on learning experiences.
You should also begin to seek out the higher education appropriate for your future career interests. Your high school guidance counselor should be able to help you find a training program that will match your career goals.
Finding a job in the semiconductor industry may mean living in the right part of the country. Certain states, such as California, Texas, and Massachusetts, have many more opportunities than others. Some of the big names in semiconductors include Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments, and National Semiconductor. These companies are very large and employ many technicians, but there are smaller and mid-size companies in the industry as well.
Semiconductor technician positions can be located through the job placement office of a community college or vocational training school. Since an associate’s degree is recommended, many of these degree programs provide students with job interviews and introductions to companies in the community that are looking for qualified workers.
Job listings in newspapers or at local employment agencies are also good places for locating job opportunities. Aspiring semiconductor technicians can also find less-skilled positions in the semiconductor industry and work hard for promotion to a technician position. Having more education and training will give you an advantage in the huge job market for semiconductors and related devices.
As with any manufacturing industry, the advancement possibilities available to semiconductor technicians will depend on their levels of skill, education, and experience. Technicians may advance to senior technicians or may find themselves in supervisory or management positions. Technicians with two-year associate’s degrees may elect to continue their education. Often, their course work will be transferable to a four-year engineering program, and many times their employer may help pay for their continuing education. Semiconductor technicians may ultimately choose to enter the engineering and design phases of the field. Also, a background in semiconductor processing and development may lead to a career in sales or purchasing of semiconductor components, materials, and equipment.
Semiconductor technicians earned a median hourly wage of $13.85, or $28,808 a year, in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Ten percent of all workers earned less than $9.53 an hour ($19,822 a year), while the top 10 percent earned $20.46 or more an hour ($42,556 a year or more). Technicians earning higher salaries have more education or have worked in the industry for many years.
The work of semiconductor technicians is not physically strenuous and is usually done in an extremely clean environment. Technicians may work with hazardous chemicals, however, and proper safety precautions must be strictly followed. Because of the large demand for semiconductors and related devices, many facilities, like Advanced Micro Devices, where Jan Gilliam works, operate with two 12- hour shifts, meaning that a technician may be assigned to the night or weekend shift, or on a rotating schedule. Gilliam works for three days and then is off for four. Because of the need for an extremely clean environment, technicians are required to wear clean-suits to keep dust, lint, and dirt out of the clean room where the production takes place.
An important component in most manufacturing processes is the speed with which products are produced. Workers may find themselves under a great deal of pressure to maintain a certain level of production volume. The ability to work well in a sometimes-stressful environment is an important quality for any prospective semiconductor technician.
Semiconductor Technician Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts there will be a decline in employment in the semiconductor industry through 2014. This decline is due to two main factors: higher productivity and increased imports. Many semiconductor manufacturers have installed new machinery that can produce twice as many wafers as the old machines. This increased automation has streamlined the staff of many manufacturing plants. In addition, manufacturers have begun to build plants in overseas locations where semiconductors can be made more cheaply than in the United States. In addition, imports of more affordable semiconductors from non-U.S. manufacturers is expected to rise in the coming years, which will lessen the need for semiconductor manufacturing technicians in the United States.
Despite this decline, semiconductors will be in greater demand than ever before, due to the increasing number of electronics and computers that use them. For example, the new 64-bit microchip, which provide desktop computers with greater power and memory, will lead to the development of many new electronic products, especially in the medical industry. Technicians will be needed to build the components for new products, as well as to replace the many technicians who will be reaching retirement age. Jobs will go the technicians with the most education, training, and technical experience.