Employment is expected to decline over the next 10 years because
of increasing automation of fabrication plants in this country
and the building of many of the new plants abroad.
An associate degree in a relevant curriculum is increasingly
Nature of the Work
Electronic semiconductors—also known as computer chips, microchips,
or integrated circuits—are the miniature but powerful brains of
high-technology equipment. Semiconductors are composed of a myriad
of tiny aluminum or copper lines and electric switches, which
manipulate the flow of electrical current. Semiconductor processors
are responsible for many of the steps necessary in the manufacture
of each semiconductor that goes into personal computers, missile
guidance systems, and a host of other electronic equipment.
Semiconductor processors are the production workers who
manufacture semiconductors in disks of varying sizes, generally
eight to twelve inches wide. These disks, called wafers, are thin
slices of silicon on which the circuitry of the microchips is
layered. Each wafer is eventually cut into dozens or scores of
Semiconductor processors make wafers by means of photolithography,
a printing process for creating patterns from photographic images.
Operating automated equipment, workers imprint precise microscopic
patterns of the circuitry on the wafers, etch out the patterns
with acids, and replace the patterns with metals that conduct
electricity. Then, the wafers receive a chemical bath to make
them smooth, and the imprint process begins again on a new layer
with the next pattern. Wafers usually have from 8 to 20 such layers
of microscopic, three-dimensional circuitry.
Semiconductors are produced in semiconductor-fabricating plants,
or “fabs.” Within fabs, the manufacturing and cutting of wafers
to create semiconductors takes place in “cleanrooms”—production
areas that must be kept free of any airborne matter, because even
extremely small particles can damage a semiconductor. All semiconductor
processors working in cleanrooms—both operators and technicians—must
wear special lightweight outer garments known as “bunny suits.”
These garments fit over clothing to prevent lint and other particles
from contaminating semiconductor-processing worksites.
Operators, who make up the majority of the workers in
cleanrooms, start and monitor the sophisticated equipment that
performs the various tasks during the many steps of the semiconductor
production sequence. They spend a great deal of time at computer
terminals, monitoring the operation of the equipment to ensure
that each of the tasks in the production of the wafer is performed
correctly. Operators also may transfer wafer carriers from one
development station to the next; in newer fabs, the lifting of
heavy wafer carriers and the constant monitoring for quality control
are increasingly being automated.
Once begun, the production of semiconductor wafers is continuous.
Operators work to the pace of the machinery that has largely automated
the production process. Operators are responsible for keeping
the automated machinery within proper operating parameters.
Technicians account for a smaller percentage of the workers
in cleanrooms, but they troubleshoot production problems and make
equipment adjustments and repairs. They also take the lead in
assuring quality control and in maintaining equipment. To keep
equipment repairs to a minimum, technicians perform diagnostic
analyses and run computations. For example, technicians may determine
if a flaw in a chip is due to contamination, and peculiar to that
wafer, or if the flaw is inherent in the manufacturing process.
The work pace in cleanrooms is deliberately slow. Limited movement
keeps the air in cleanrooms as free as possible of dust and other
particles, which can destroy semiconductors during their production.
Because the machinery sets the operators’ rate of work in the
largely automated production process, workers maintain an easygoing
pace. Although workers spend some time alone monitoring equipment,
operators and technicians spend much of their time working in
Technicians are on their feet most of the day, walking through
the cleanroom to oversee production activities. Operators spend
a great deal of time sitting or standing at workstations, monitoring
computer readouts and gauges. Sometimes, they must retrieve wafers
from one station and take them to another.
The temperature in the cleanrooms must be kept within a narrow
range: usually, it is set at a comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although bunny suits cover virtually the entire body, except perhaps
the eyes (over which workers wear protective glasses), their lightweight
fabric keeps the temperature inside fairly comfortable as well.
Entry and exit of workers in bunny suits from the cleanroom are
controlled to minimize contamination, and workers must be reclothed
in a clean suit and decontaminated each time they return to the
Several highly toxic chemicals are used at various points in
the process of manufacturing semiconductors. Workers who are exposed
to such chemicals can be seriously harmed. However, semiconductor
fabrication plants are designed with safeguards to ensure that
these chemicals are handled, used, and disposed of without exposure
to workers or the surrounding environment. Toxic chemicals are
applied to wafers by computer-controlled machine tools in sealed
chambers and there is normally little risk of workers coming into
contact with them.
Semiconductor-fabricating plants operate around the clock. For
this reason, night and weekend work is common. In some plants,
workers maintain standard 8-hour shifts, 5 days a week. In other
plants, employees are on duty for 12-hour shifts to minimize the
disruption of cleanroom operations brought about by changes in
shift. In some plants, managers allow workers to alternate schedules,
thereby distributing the overnight shift equitably.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
People interested in becoming semiconductor processors—either
operators or technicians—need a solid background in mathematics
and the physical sciences. In addition to applying these disciplines
to the complex manufacturing processes performed in fabs, math
and science knowledge are essentials for pursuing higher education
in semiconductor technology—and knowledge of both subjects is
one of the best ways to advance in the semiconductor fabricating
Semiconductor processor workers must also be able to think analytically
and critically to anticipate problems and avoid costly mistakes.
Communication skills also are vital, as workers must be able to
convey their thoughts and ideas both orally and in writing.
For semiconductor processor jobs, employers prefer persons who
have completed associate degree programs. However, completion
of a 1-year certificate program in semiconductor technology offered
by some community colleges, supplemented by experience, may also
be sufficient; Some semiconductor technology programs at community
colleges include internships at a semiconductor fabricating plants.
Others persons also may qualify by completing a degree in high-tech
manufacturing, a new degree offered by some community colleges
that prepares graduates to work in the semiconductor industry,
as well as other industries such as pharmaceuticals, aerospace,
or automotive. Degree or certificate program graduates who get
hands-on training while attending school should have the best
To ensure that operators and technicians keep their skills current,
many employers provide 40 hours of formal training annually. Some
employers also provide financial assistance to employees who want
to earn associate and bachelor’s degrees to further their career
or to work towards becoming a technician.
Summer and part-time employment provide another option for getting
started in the field for those who are at least 18 years old and
live near a semiconductor processing plant. Students often are
hired to work during the summer, and some students are allowed
to continue working part time during the school year. Students
in summer and part-time semiconductor processor jobs learn what
education they need to prosper in the field. They also gain valuable
experience that may lead to full-time employment after graduation.
Some semiconductor processing technicians transfer to sales engineer
jobs with suppliers of the machines that manufacture the semiconductors
or become field support personnel.
Electronic semiconductor processors held approximately 45,000
jobs in 2004. Nearly all of them were employed in facilities that
manufacture semiconductors and other electronic components and
accessories, though a small percentage worked in plants that primarily
manufacture computers and office equipment.
Employment of semiconductor processors is projected to decline
between 2004 and 2014. The two main reasons for this are increasing
automation and the construction of many newer fabs in other countries.
Semiconductor manufacturers are shifting production to larger
12” wafers, which produce twice as many chips as fabs making 8”
wafers. Plants that make 12” wafers are more automated, allowing
them to sharply increase production with the same number of workers.
Additionally, a number of domestic companies are building more
fabs overseas, where costs are lower. Imports of semiconductors
from non-U.S. companies also are growing and may continue to increase
throughout the decade. In spite of the decline in employment,
some jobs will open up due to the need to replace workers who
leave the occupation.
Despite the expected decline in employment of semiconductor processors,
the demand for semiconductor chips remains very high stemming
from the many existing and future applications for semiconductors
in computers, appliances, machinery, biotechnology, vehicles,
cell phones and other telecommunications devices, and other equipment.
Moreover, the advent of the new 64-bit microchip and “dual-core”
chips is expected to provide the power of computer servers or
workstations, onto desktop computers and open up a wealth of new
applications, particularly in medical devices.
Industry development of semiconductors made from better materials
means that semiconductors will become even smaller, more powerful,
and more durable. For example, the industry has begun producing
a new generation of microchips made with copper rather than aluminum
wires, which will better conduct electricity. Also, technology
now exists to make chips for wireless connections to the Internet
possible over a range of several miles, while another company
will soon be producing chips that will save massive amounts of
energy in many kinds of electric products.
Job prospects will be best for people with postsecondary education
in electronics or semiconductor technology.
Median hourly earnings of electronic semiconductor processors
were $13.85 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between
$11.44 and $16.90 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than
$9.53, and the top 10 percent earned more than $20.46 an hour.
Technicians with an associate degree in electronics or semiconductor
technology generally start at higher salaries than those with
less education. About 15 percent of all electronic semiconductor
processors belonged to a union.
Electronic semiconductor processors do production work that resembles
the work of precision assemblers and fabricators of electrical
and electronic equipment. Also, many electronic semiconductor
processors have academic training in semiconductor technology,
which emphasizes scientific and engineering principles. Other
occupations that require some college or postsecondary vocational
training emphasizing such principles are engineering technicians,
electrical and electronics engineers, and science technicians.
Sources of Additional Information
For more information on semiconductor processor careers, contact: