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Manufacturing’s next wave: Highly skilled workers

CHANDLER – Construction cranes looming over Intel Corp.’s Ocotillo campus are helping assemble a $5.2 billion chip-fabrication plant that will employ 1,000 people.

But these manufacturing jobs will be far different from those of another era.

The minimum calling card is a two-year technical degree or equivalent experience in areas like process design, automation software and packaging and assembly technology. Many positions will require bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees.

“We’re always looking to attract the high-skilled people with advanced degrees and technical training who are always looking ahead and producing ideas and technology that we can’t conceive now but are going to be there in the future,” said Rachel Sutherland, communications and media relations manager for Intel here.

President Barack Obama, who has made expanding manufacturing jobs part of his re-election campaign, visited here earlier this year to tout Intel’s expansion and the need for workers ready for increasingly technical roles.

Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, a nonprofit group that advocates for education, said improving public schools is key to developing a workforce that attracts manufacturing companies.

“If we want to build an economic future where we are improving our quality of life and that we’re leading in innovation and in entrepreneurship, we have the potential to be that kind of a state, but we have to make sure that we’re putting in the proper investments in education,” she said.

Esau said Arizona’s substandard performance in measures of math and reading skills, high dropout rate and lack of those with postsecondary degrees suggest the need for more state support of education as well as partnerships between businesses and schools.

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“We need to connect kids who are learning in classrooms to what they need to be able to do in the real world,” Esau said. “That is a lot more engaging.”

That’s what Intel is committed to, said Cathleen Barton, the company’s Arizona-based U.S. education manager.

While investing $1 billion in education around the world over the past decade, she said, Intel partnered with the Arizona Department of Education on Intel Teach, which provides training and professional development for teachers on effective use of technology in the classroom. Intel also works with school districts to improve instruction in math, science, engineering and technology, she said.

“We rely on innovation, and we need an educated workforce to fuel Intel’s growth, fuel the growth of other companies in the community and in the state and around the world,” Barton said.

Timothy Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said integrating technology in classrooms is critical to preparing students for the workplace.

“The business environment has such an accelerated nature of innovation,” he said. “Schools need to match that energy.”

But Ogle said the state is taking steps in the right direction, especially with the implementation of Arizona’s Common Core Standards, elevating expectations in areas like math and science to prepare students for college and careers. He also pointed to joint technical education districts, or JTEDs, that provide instruction geared toward specific careers.

“We’re making great progress,” Ogle said. “We can always get better and improve, but we have a great system and great foundation in place and the opportunities are endless and really exciting.”

Mark Dobbins, immediate past chairman of the Arizona Manufacturers Council, said he’s confident that preparing the workforce needed by Intel, Raytheon, Boeing as well as companies yet to come to the state starts with parents educating their children.

“Instead of telling children to be doctors or lawyers or college professors, tell them that manufacturing in the U.S. going forward is an excellent career direction,” he said, “that it is highly intellectual, high-paying and over the long term, it’s secure.”

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For Intel, having a skilled, educated workforce means that manufacturing can maintain its identity in the U.S., Sutherland said.

“There’s some factors with creating factories outside the U.S. that might make it a little cheaper, but we really feel that being located in the U.S. … gives us access to highly educated people,” she said. “We want to grow them from the ground up and not just look to other sources to find these employees.”

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Melanie Yamaguchi/Cronkite News Service

Rachel Sutherland, communications and media relations manager for Intel Corp. in Arizona, said the company is on the lookout out highly skilled workers ready to work in increasingly technical manufacturing jobs.