Semiconductors are unique substances, which, under different conditions, can act as either conductors or insulators of electricity. Semiconductor processors turn one of these substances—silicon—into integrated circuits, also known as microchips. These integrated circuits contain anywhere from dozens to millions of tiny electronic components, and are used in a wide range of products, from personal computers and cellular telephones to airplanes and missile guidance systems.
Semiconductor processors—often referred to in the industry as technicians or process technicians—oversee the manufacturing process of microchips. This process begins with the production of cylinders of silicon called ingots. The ingots then are sliced into thin wafers. Using automated equipment, robots polish the wafers, imprint precise microscopic patterns of the circuitry onto them using photolithography, etch out patterns with acids, and replace the patterns with conductors, such as aluminum or copper. The wafers then receive a chemical bath to make them smooth, and the imprint process begins again on a new layer with the next pattern. A complex chip may contain more than 20 layers of circuitry. Once the process is complete, wafers are then cut into individual chips, which are enclosed in a casing and shipped to equipment manufacturers.
The manufacturing and slicing of wafers to create semiconductors takes place in clean rooms—production areas that are kept free of all airborne matter, because the circuitry on a chip is so small that even microscopic particles can make it unusable. All semiconductor processors working in clean rooms must wear special lightweight outer garments known as “bunny suits.” These garments fit over clothing to prevent lint and other particles from contaminating the clean room.
Semiconductor processors troubleshoot production problems and make equipment adjustments and repairs. They take the lead in assuring quality control and in maintaining equipment. They also test completed chips to make sure they work properly. 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.
Workers begin their shift by putting on a bunny suit. For new workers, this often can take as much as 40 minutes, but experienced workers can generally do it in 5 minutes or less. The work pace in clean rooms is deliberately slow. Limited movement keeps the air in clean rooms as free as possible of dust and other particles, which can destroy microchips during their production. Because the machinery sets the operators' rate of work, workers maintain a relaxed pace. Technicians are on their feet most of the day, walking through the clean room to oversee production activities. The temperature in the clean rooms must be kept within a narrow range and generally is comfortable for workers.
Although bunny suits cover virtually the entire body, their lightweight fabric keeps the temperature inside fairly comfortable. Entry and exit of workers from the clean room are controlled to minimize contamination, and workers must be reclothed in a clean bunny suit and decontaminated each time they return to the clean room. Semiconductor fabricating plants operate around the clock. 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 clean room operations brought about by changes. Managers also may allow workers to alternate schedules, thereby distributing the overnight shift equitably.
Education & Training Required
For semiconductor processor jobs, employers prefer applicants who have completed associate degrees in highly automated systems, electromechanical automation, or electronics. However, completion of a 1-year certificate program in semiconductor technology or high-tech manufacturing, offered by some community colleges, may be sufficient. Some semiconductor technology programs at community colleges include internships at semiconductor fabricating plants. Hands-on training is an important part of degree and certificate programs.
To ensure that operators and technicians keep their skills current, employers provide regular on-the-job training. Some employers also provide financial assistance to employees who want to earn associate or bachelor's degrees, especially if the employee is working toward becoming a technician.
Other Skills Required
People interested in becoming semiconductor processors—either operators or technicians—need strong technical skills, an ability to solve problems intuitively, and an ability to work in teams. Mathematics, including statistics, and physical science knowledge are useful. Communication skills and an understanding of manufacturing principles also are very important.
How to Advance
Workers advance as they become more comfortable with the equipment and better understand the manufacturing process. Employees train workers for several months, after which they become entry-level operators or technicians. After a few years, as they become more knowledgeable about the operations of the plant, they generally advance to the intermediate level. This entails greater responsibilities. Over time, usually 7 to 10 years, workers may become senior technicians, who lead teams of technicians and work directly with engineers to develop processes in the plant.
Employment of semiconductor processors is projected to decline. Opportunities will be best for those with associate degrees and experience working in high-tech manufacturing.
Median annual wages of wage-and-salary semiconductor processors was $52,230. The middle 50 percent earned between $46,650 and $60,220. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,980, and the top 10 percent earned more than $70,400.
Technicians with associate degrees in a related field generally start at higher salaries than those with less education. Semiconductor processors generally received good benefits packages, including healthcare, disability plans and life insurance, stock options and retirement.