A chip shot to grow jobs in upstate New York

Help Wanted: Manufacturing

In the middle of the Luther Forest in upstate New York, a massive advanced manufacturing plant is bringing high paying jobs to a long depressed region of the Empire State.

"What I can tell you is that an average salary, high to low end, is about $90,000 for a roll up salary," said Mike Russo, director of government relations for GlobalFoundries.

Russo is speaking about the average pay and benefits for the 2,200 workers the privately held firm employs at the facility, and the 600 to 800 new workers it plans to hire this year. All of them will work at its 390,000-square-foot chipmaking facility in Malta, New York, about 20 miles north of Albany, the state's capital.

The Malta plant, known as Fab 8, is GlobalFoundries eighth contract manufacturing facility and its only one in the United States. Here, as well as at six plants in Asia and one in Dresden, Germany, it makes chips for 150 clients that include Qualcomm, and its former parent Advanced Micro Devices.

GlobalFoundries campus in Malta, N.Y.
Mary Thompson | CNBC

Headquartered in Silicon Valley, GlobalFoundries decided to open its newest plant in New York because of generous tax incentives, its proximity to community and four-year colleges, and because of the Luther Forest Technology Campus it now calls home. The 1,400-acre park was built with the aim of attracting a semiconductor manufacturer.

"There was a pretty substantial cash grant to help reimburse the development costs of the factory construction, the general building of the building," said Russo.

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Why did New York want a company that makes semiconductors? Facilities like Fab 8 not only create jobs within the plant, but many outside of it as well. Research suggests that for each job opened at Fab 8, five others would be created, meaning about 11,000 additional jobs in the community. Indeed, the number of manufacturing jobs nationally bumped up to 12.1 million in April, from 12.08 million in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reported Friday that 288,000 jobs were created in April with the unemployment dropping to 6.3 percent.

At GlobalFoundries, the jobs range from construction workers to the caterers who feed the workforce on site.

"We have 3,000 building- and construction-trade workers and contractors on site as well," said Russo. "We work collaboratively with them to develop their skills to build this clean fab or clean fab technology."

A lab at GlobalFoundries' Malta plant
Mary Thompson | CNBC

When GlobalFoundries opened Fab 8 in 2012, many of its employees were brought in from overseas. The company needed the experienced manpower to get it up and running. These days, about half the workforce is from abroad, and the firm expects about half the new hires will be from overseas as well. It would like to hire more domestic workers, in part, so the company does not have to pay to relocate them, but it's still tough to find people with the necessary skills here.

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The facility is basically manned by two groups of workers, engineers and technicians. Engineers are typically graduates of four-year colleges. They experiment with new technologies and run the manufacturing process. Technicians are the Mr. Fix-Its, maintaining the multimillion dollar machines that make the chips, and troubleshooting when the process breaks down. They will typically have an associate's degree, and right now, GlobalFoundries is having trouble finding enough of them.

"We are seeing a big gap in our technicians," said Don Garrison, technical training manager. "We're seeing a gap in hands on people who can come in and get the equipment up and running."

Keeping the machines working is important. The facility is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Technicians and some engineers will work 12-hour shifts that alternate three days on, four days off, four days on, three days off.

"Every minute that we're not running product is profit lost to the company," said Garrison.

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To develop a greater pool of technicians, the firm works closely with New York's 30 community colleges, encouraging them to revamp their curriculums so graduates are better prepared for work in advanced manufacturing. For example, Hudson Valley Community College has a simulated trainer next door to Fab 8's training facility and teaches the mechanical and electrical skills a new employee would need.

GlobalFoundries also pitches high schools on reintroducing the shop classes needed to improve hands-on skills, and pitches students on the benefits of working in advanced manufacturing.

"Basically what we let them know is that its a very lucrative industry to go into," said Garrison. "By focusing them on the skills that we need, they could actually be starting off at anywhere around $22 an hour or up."

It takes over 1,000 steps to make a chip for GlobalFoundries' 150 clients. In a clean room the size of six football fields, engineers and technicians will oversee the process, which takes three months to complete. In the end 300-millimeter (12-inch) silicon wafers yield anywhere from 500 to 800 computer chips that will mostly be used in mobile applications.

The production process is broken down into six major modules including thin films, etch, diffusion and lithography. Technicians are tested to see what skills they need training in and then are assigned to different modules depending on their skills.

Another lab at GlobalFoundries' Malta plant
Mary Thompson | CNBC

"Its almost like learning how to walk, first you crawl, then you walk, then you run," said technician trainee Jabez Cruz, who moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to take a job at GlobalFoundries. Cruz has 20 years' experience in semiconductor manufacturing but as chips are different and the technology changes quickly, he is in the process of being retrained.

In the end, Russo said the most important skill a worker at the facility can have is one that is tough to teach in the classroom.

"We have 36 countries working in one facility," he said. "Those people are coming from different backgrounds, different countries and different companies that all have to work together collaboratively to deliver what we deliver, the solutions we provide to our customers."

For a long struggling region, GlobalFoundries provides some hope for ending a half century exodus of steady, high paying jobs.

—By CNBC's Mary Thompson.