From Classrooms to Clean Rooms: Building Micron’s Next-Generation Workforce

Photo Credit: CWI

Nathan Ralston, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, grew up watching his father tinker with car engines and developed a hands-on curiosity for how things work and how to fix them. After high school, Nathan was studying for a degree in mechanical engineering when the global pandemic moved everything online. Learning physics and calculus through Zoom wasn’t working for him, so Nathan took a couple years off to work, fixing electronic games at a local arcade while he explored what to do next. Someone like Nathan, who has an engineering mindset but is unsure of the right path forward in a difficult job market, needed to find the right place to land.

Nathan’s story is common for high school graduates seeking a practical pathway to a successful career that fits their interest and learning style.

Micron’s Boise-based $15 billion semiconductor fabrication plant will create 2,000 direct job opportunities over the next five to 10 years. This influx of jobs will uplift the state’s economy, empower Idaho workers and grow local communities. It also poses a challenge - how to find, cultivate and educate people, like Nathan, for a career in the cutting-edge fields of electronics, automation and semiconductor manufacturing. The solution lies in a multi-faceted partnership that weaves together the strands of education, business and government to produce a diverse and talented workforce.

The Idaho Workforce Development Council is leading this comprehensive approach to develop the highly trained workforce that will support the Micron expansion. And Wendi Secrist, Executive Director of the Council, is the perfect person to take on this multi-dimensional effort. Secrist, a master facilitator with the rare mix of passion and established relationships, has created a connected, collaborative environment where goals and intentions are clear.

“We’re making investments where they’ll have the greatest impact, determining how we can all work together to tap underserved populations and find the talent that will grow the workforce,” said Secrist. “Micron needs technicians and engineers, so we need to build STEM literacy, provide awareness of careers across the state, offer financial incentives and help individuals know the different pathways to a successful career.”

Nathan is just one of many students who benefitted from this statewide effort. He recently started school again at College of Western Idaho (CWI) where he is using his “engineering energy” to gain valuable experience and move forward in his career.


Educational Institutions Cultivate Cutting-Edge Talent

Educational institutions throughout Idaho such as Boise State University, CWI and K-12 schools are reimagining and creating new systems to align with the demands of a rapidly evolving tech industry landscape.

This shift starts early with K-12 schools nurturing innovative thinking from an early age. These schools lay the foundation for a curriculum that emphasizes practical skills, critical thinking and technological literacy by building stronger STEM education, interest and aptitude. Soñia Galaviz, a 5th grade teacher in the Boise School District and a member of the Idaho House of Representatives, said students’ STEM identity starts to set in between the ages of 10 to 14 years old. “It’s important to take advantage of this identity development and intervene earlier by speaking the language of possibility,” Galaviz said. “For most of these students, their parents don’t work for Micron or have experience in these industries, so it’s important for students to get that exposure.”

Galaviz shared that students are used to hearing word problems and solving equations, but by providing them with hands-on experience, you can change their outlook on STEM. Bringing in industry experts and STEM representatives and going on field trips provides students with face-to-face contact and real-world examples that help them envision future career paths. By the time these students graduate, they will be familiar with STEM opportunities because of the multiple touchpoints throughout their educational journey.

This process has already begun with a program called Idaho Connect. This virtual platform allows teachers to reach out to employers and industry professionals to request a classroom experience. If a teacher working on a chemistry unit wants to show their students why a certain equation matters in real life, they can request a subject matter expert show a real-world example. Or, if they’re doing career exploration, they can have individuals from different careers share their experiences with the students. Everything is recorded and kept in a video library that every high school and teacher in the state can access.

While K-12 schools seek to grow the pool of young students interested in STEM, Micron joined forces with Boise State and CWI to help them develop new courses and curriculum that provide industry relevant, hands-on, experiential learning.


Making the Grade in Classrooms and Cleanrooms

At Boise State, the Engineering Plus Degree focuses on integrating engineering with semiconductors and microelectronics, breaking down traditional silos. This approach allows students to select their courses based on their career interests while also cultivating holistic problem-solving skills, a vital asset in the multifaceted semiconductor landscape. The university's state-of-the-art cleanroom also provides students hands-on experience within controlled environments that parallel real-world industrial settings.

“One of the first things we did was create a series of certificates to get more of a deep dive in the semiconductor industry,” said JoAnn Lighty, Dean of the College of Engineering at Boise State. “We’re hoping this will help students develop a career identity and get a glimpse into what their future will hold, while also giving them the motivation and longevity to complete their classes. A true student success story is knowing the different opportunities and having an informed choice, and then having the financial support to access those opportunities.”

Concurrently, the Advanced Mechatronics Engineering Technology program at CWI has doubled in size and offers students and career changers a seamless transition from theory to application. Nic Miller, Assistant Vice President of Strategic Projects at CWI noted, "We move from theory to practice really fast at the community college level. This swift integration of classroom knowledge into real-world training scenarios equips our students with a competitive edge, ensuring that they are industry-ready upon graduation.”

Nathan is in his second semester as a Mechatronics student and is also a lab assistant for the two-year program. “I've always enjoyed fixing things, especially electronics,” said Nathan. I knew that that would be an engaging career field for me. I wouldn't be sitting behind the desk all day. Instead, I will be working on the factory floor, taking apart equipment, figuring out how it works, and getting it back to where it is functioning at a high level.”

CWI offers apprenticeship opportunities with Micron that allows students to engage in a hands-on learning experience while earning a wage. CWI is also actively partnering with an outside recruitment agency to help find diverse applicants from underserved populations who are interested in upskilling. “In Idaho there are a lot of people who are underemployed,” said Miller. “This program helps them turn their job into a career. We want to partner with these lifelong learners to evolve with them along their educational journey.”

“The profound impact of these educational programs goes far beyond the classroom,” said Secrist. “These initiatives will shape the future of Idaho’s workforce. By ensuring students have numerous career pathways available and accessible, we will continue to grow a skilled labor pool that will attract businesses and further economic growth.”


Government Programs Propel Skill Development

While education is vital to career development, many high school graduates don’t pursue higher education, leaving a sizable, untapped supply of potential workers. Many of these individuals are in rural areas and may not be aware of the available opportunities or possess the financial resources to pursue higher education or advanced training.

“About 42% of Idaho high school graduates in 2022 went on to higher education and 58% of students are going into the workforce,” said Miller. “This is our target audience, and we need to educate them on the good paying jobs available in Idaho.”

The Workforce Development Council also granted Boise State a $5 million grant to create the Semiconductor For All certificate. This program will allow Boise State educators to develop semiconductor specific courses for elementary school to high school students to create stronger education pathways for the industry. These online courses will help students understand the different options available and grant them the opportunity to earn the credentials and certifications needed to enter directly into the workforce.

Another initiative to prepare Idaho students for the workforce of the future is the Idaho Launch program. Recently passed by Governor Brad Little and the Idaho legislature and starting in 2024, this grant program connects Idaho students with funding to train for in-demand careers. It provides high school graduates with 80% of their college tuition, training or certification fees covered up to $8,000.

“Idaho Launch is the crowning investment in how we’re going to grow the workforce,” said Secrist. “Launch is unique because it’s a benefit meant for anyone. It’s a shift in attitude from the traditional education path. If you’re not meant for higher education, that’s okay. We’ll support you in a different way to get you into the workforce.”


Partnerships Create Endless Possibilities

The partnerships and initiatives happening throughout Idaho reflect education, government and Micron’s commitment to strengthening the semiconductor ecosystem. As Secrist pointed out, "We need to work together because we all have resources that achieve different things, and when we blend them, we make magic happen.”