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Cover Story

July 19, 2010
Volume 88, Number 29
pp. 10 - 16

Filling Nanotech Jobs

Initiatives to educate and employ workers try to find a footing as nanotechnology evolves

Ann M. Thayer

TRAINING TRAINERS Faculty workshop attendees learn how to use a scanning probe microscope in the Nanotechnology Applications & Career Knowledge center. NACK
TRAINING TRAINERS Faculty workshop attendees learn how to use a scanning probe microscope in the Nanotechnology Applications & Career Knowledge center.
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A decade ago, nanoscience shifted into overdrive. Government funding levels were beginning to rise, and the U.S. was setting up its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Nanomaterials were gaining ground, and venture capitalists were backing dozens of start-up manufacturing companies.

The National Science Foundation predicted then that sales of nanotech-related products would reach $1 trillion by 2015 and calculated that it would take 2 million workers—at least 800,000 in the U.S. alone—to support manufacturing. Other groups came along with even larger estimates. As research programs expanded, academia also turned to preparing students for nanotech-related jobs.

Ten years down the road, and with 2015 just over the horizon, it’s clear that the hype has died down and investment momentum has slowed. Although U.S. government nanotech spending under NNI has totaled nearly $12 billion, according to market research firm Lux Research, the recession has further blunted demand for nanomaterials, slowed technology adoption, and reduced its market projections. Many small firms have closed their doors, and some state nanotech initiatives have stalled.

Beyond the likely effect of the economic downturn on employment, efforts to train a nanotech workforce face other uncertainties. The technology has moved into products and manufacturing, but it is still early in its commercial development path. And while it evolves, it must compete for government and investor attention from newer emerging technologies.

Some industry watchers believe the U.S. is still on track to realize nanotechnology’s workforce promise. One is Mihail C. Roco, a senior adviser for nanotechnology at NSF who was instrumental in generating the employment estimates (Nat. Biotechnol. 2003, 21, 1247). About 160,000 people in the U.S. were working in nanotechnology in 2008, he says. “On average, the worldwide rate has increased 25% per year between 2000 and 2008. You apply that and arrive at about 800,000 in 2015,” Roco explains.

These figures have been quoted widely for years, but skeptics are not hard to find. “Nanotechnology isn’t quite as fashionable as it was five or six years ago,” says Tim E. Harper, founder and chief executive officer of the technology consulting firm Cientifica. Attention has turned to energy and cleantech, he says, and governments have eased off on funding basic nanotech research and are encouraging a push toward manufacturing and commercialization.

“Many people presupposed that nanotech was going to be an industry that can be defined, but it’s nearly impossible to second-guess the path an emerging technology will take,” Harper says.

Because nanoscience is interdisciplinary and broadly applicable, defining a workforce is difficult, and knowing what kind of graduates are needed, or their exact numbers, is harder still, he says. “From an entrepreneur’s point of view, you want smart people who have a grounding in a variety of sciences, and then you can shape them according to the application.”

In 2009, the rate of nanotech-related job growth did fall to about half the previous years’ average, Roco acknowledges, but he believes the field is resilient. For supporters such as Roco, nanotechnology is critical to national competitiveness. It won’t disappear as fashions change, he maintains, but will impact energy and the environment, as well as electronics, health care, and other industries.

To measure jobs, Roco uses a definition that covers nanoscale science, engineering, and technology and tallies workers in two ways. One is by assessing penetration, primarily the use of nanomaterials, into production and then estimating the number of workers who handle something “nano.” Another is by counting employment in new areas that he considers nanotech, such as advanced flat-panel displays, nanophotonics, and molecular medicine.

“So far, the majority of jobs come from penetration into classical industries,” Roco says. He sees a shift coming, however, as applications move from passive nanostructures to new products based on nanoscale systems. This shift will change qualification requirements for workers. “It will no longer be sufficient to have a traditional education,” he warns.

Agencies under NNI are working to meet an NNI strategic goal to “develop and sustain educational resources, a skilled workforce, and the supporting infrastructure.” A network of research centers and user facilities offers instrumentation and fabrication tools, and most facilities have education and outreach mandates. According to Roco’s figures, NSF facilities have trained about 10,000 undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs.

Beyond the usual research grants, NSF has funded new education initiatives. Among these is the National Center for Learning & Teaching at Northwestern University, which involves 10 other university partners. Since 2004, NCLT has been developing and disseminating precollege and college curricula and providing teaching resources through its NanoEd website.

Reviews of NNI by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology and others have recommended improving coordination around education and workforce issues. Often near the top of the list is a call for increased participation by the Departments of Labor and Education, agencies new to NNI in 2006, to provide input and help strengthen efforts.

“This should be the next major step,” Roco agrees. “NSF has created a spectrum of methods and models in education, and now these need to be implemented at a larger scale.” He and others in government are counting on the Commerce Department to help assess industry needs and point universities in the right direction.

But the path forward is unclear, in part because the funding environment is in flux. For example, funding that jump-started some of the early nanotech centers, such as NCLT, has ended, and the centers must recompete or find other ways to sustain their operations.

Adding to the uncertainty, NNI is in the process of updating its strategic plan, and its reauthorization has been folded into the America Competes Act (C&EN, June 7, page 9). The House of Representatives has passed the bill, but it may not be voted on by the Senate before Congress adjourns in November, says John C. Monica Jr., who is in the nanotechnology practice group at the Washington, D.C., law firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur.

Other attempts to get federal funding, such as the House’s Nanotechnology Education Act and the Senate’s Promote Nanotechnology in Schools Act, “seem to be stuck in committee,” Monica says. Both bills target training workers to fill potential jobs and help sustain U.S. leadership in nanotechnology.

“We have been predicting this huge need for trained nanotechnology workers, but there is always the question of whether we are putting the cart before the horse,” Monica says. “The idea is to create the mechanisms to fund the development of that workforce, which is very forward-thinking, but when you look at the economy and all the other issues that we have, is Congress going to be convinced to allocate money?”

About a year ago, NSF sponsored the Partnership for Nanotechnology Education workshop, which was a major step toward engaging groups outside the agency, says the workshop’s director, James S. Murday. Having served as director of the NNI coordinating office, Murday is now an associate director in the University of Southern California’s Office of Research Advancement.

NNI has always understood the need to translate the science into applications, Murday says, and has been most successful in reaching out to the electronics and information technology industries. “The workforce needs are easier to identify compared with other areas where the contributions of nanostructures are less well-defined,” he explains.

His vision for the future is of affordable and well-characterized nanostructure-based building blocks combined with the knowledge of how to assemble them and predictive modeling tools to achieve the desired end result. When this picture is complete, Murday says, it will better define what products will be made and the training the workforce will need.

Until that vision is realized, some schools are trying to anticipate what is needed with degrees that emphasize nanoscience or engineering. Research universities have designed graduate- and B.S.-level programs, and community colleges that supply much of the manufacturing workforce have tackled trying to create new associate-degree-level courses.

“Everybody is experimenting and watching to see what works best,” Murday says. “The early answer seems to be that graduates are getting good jobs, but there’s also a question of the rate of progress. If you push your educational institutions too fast and create too many students, you saturate the market. So what is the right balance?”

Education, like any business, responds to market needs. Murday supposes that nanoscience education could mirror the materials science field, which came together under government investment in the 1960s. “It’s sort of an existence proof in the past 50 years that you don’t have to be bound by the old disciplines,” Murday says. Instead of getting hung up on what nanotech is or isn’t, “maybe we ought to focus on what we really want, which is new products and figuring out how to design our educational system to make the fastest progress,” he suggests.

Farthest along this path, arguably, is Pennsylvania State University. Since 1998, Penn State has been part of a state initiative to train workers in nanofabrication. With NSF backing in 2008, it established a national center for Nanotechnology Applications & Career Knowledge (NACK). In recent NNI budget proposals, NSF has stated a desire to set up other regional education hubs.

NACK builds on a program for two-year community and small four-year colleges in the state. Students selected and sent from about 30 schools can complete a six-course capstone semester at the university. Coming in with prerequisite skills, they leave with training in nanoscale processing and characterization. Taught at the sophomore level, the semester can serve as the final stage for an associate-level degree awarded by the student’s home institution.

Penn State engineering professor Stephen J. Fonash, who directs NACK, calls nanotechnology “materials science for the 21st century” and “a great marriage of chemistry, physics, materials science, engineering, and biology.”

“We don’t train students for particular industries, but for careers,” Fonash says. “Nanotechnology is ubiquitous, and the skills they get can be applied to any industry.” Although the subject matter crosses many disciplines, Fonash says, the skill set is specific because companies want to know how the students have been trained. In light of the variety of two-year programs that have emerged, NACK is in discussions with certifying organizations about creating standards and accreditations.

To help shape the target skills and evaluate its program, NACK has surveyed companies and draws on its industrial advisory board. Companies remain interested, Fonash says, but have toned down their “intense wining and dining” of students. And although some people with graduate degrees who were laid off from other jobs

“Nanotechnology isn’t quite as fashionable as it was five or six years ago.”

By the end of this summer, Penn State will have graduated 628 students from the capstone program. “They are either getting jobs in materials-related industries, including pharmaceuticals, or are going on to higher education,” Fonash says. Only a few are called anything like “nanotechnology technician,” he notes, which implies that job seekers should look carefully at job descriptions and not the job title.

Fonash strongly believes that research universities should share resources with smaller, less-well-outfitted colleges and schools. The University of Minnesota has followed suit with a similar program called NanoLink. Besides working directly with smaller institutions, Penn State makes equipment available for remote teaching use through NACK’s Nano4Me website. All the course material can be downloaded as slides and should be available as videos later this year. NACK also runs workshops to prepare educators to teach the materials outside Penn State.

“It is important to have a workforce that is skilled at a number of levels—the technician level, the baccalaureate level, and of course the Ph.D. level,” Fonash says. “We have to train a workforce to make this country competitive for the 21st century.”

At the undergraduate and graduate levels, most schools are sticking with degrees in traditional disciplines and adding the option for a minor, concentration, or certificate in nanotechnology. “This is an evolutionary step and probably the safer one for the moment,” Murday says, although he sees “nano” degrees being in demand at some point in the future.

That future is already here at the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering at the State University of New York, Albany, which has offered nanoscale science and engineering degrees since 2004. It has awarded 36 M.S. and 21 Ph.D. degrees and had enrolled another 130 students as of this past spring. This year, CNSE launched a B.S. program with 15 students. Interest levels are high, and the program receives about 12 applicants per position, says Stephen R. Janack, marketing vice president for CNSE.

The overall approach is hands-on and interdisciplinary, with “constellations” instead of academic departments. For the first two years, students build a fundamental base of knowledge. “That’s the beauty of nanotechnology,” Janack says. “Once they have that knowledge base, they can take it in any direction that they want, and being educated to think in broader terms makes them extremely valuable to companies and as members of teams.”

Like other academic centers, CNSE engages in public outreach, K–12 education, and work with community colleges. Employing 2,500 people, CNSE’s Albany NanoTech Complex is a sizable R&D, manufacturing, and business site, which gives students opportunities for internships and fellowships. Potential employers include companies already on-site or nearby, such as IBM, and new firms that have moved into the area to take advantage of the facilities.

SUNY Albany’s programs are part of a state initiative around nanotech-related economic development. Of the $5.5 billion that has been invested, $4.5 billion has come from private industry and about $900 million from the state. “Part of the mission is not only to train the workforce but to build a workforce that is able to grow as opportunities continue to grow in New York state,” Janack says.

“Every student that has graduated has gone into industry, R&D, or continued the educational process,” he says. A majority are finding jobs in New York. CNSE has even collaborated with local groups in the construction trades—for example, to help retrain plumbers and pipe fitters to do their work in clean-room environments.

New York, Pennsylvania, California, and Massachusetts are four of the top five states with the highest concentrations of companies, universities, and research organizations working in nanotech-related areas. Initiatives in these states have expanded, but in Texas, the other top-five state, some economic development initiatives have waned, although its universities and colleges continue to be extremely active on their own and in newer initiatives.

“The trend of nanotechnology initiatives failing is pretty high,” concludes Monica, the nanotech lawyer, on the basis of a survey of municipal, regional, and state efforts. “It can be easy to start something but very hard to keep it going.” Although the economy has been a factor in the slowdown, inflated expectations have contributed as well. “People said the economy was going to explode with nanotechnology in 2004, but it’s been taking years longer than anybody thought,” he says.

James R. von Ehr II, who founded Richardson, Texas-based Zyvex in 1997, helped start the Texas Nanotechnology Initiative in 2001. It brought together companies, universities, venture capital investors, and government to establish the state as a leader in nanotechnology. Although TNI still exists and its members communicate, it is not active, von Ehr says. A similar group, the Texas Alliance for Nanotechnology, is dormant.

The Texas Emerging Technology Fund, run out of the governor’s office, continues to support six industry clusters in which nanotechnology can be applied. State and business interests also once participated in the Texas Nanotechnology Workforce Development Initiative (TNWDI), which focused on curriculum development at several community colleges and had a well-received company internship program.

The colleges had good training programs, von Ehr says, “and we had a lot of interns come through Zyvex over a multiyear period and hired a number of these very skilled people.” Zyvex has since split into Zyvex Labs, an advanced manufacturing business run by von Ehr; Zyvex Performance Materials; and Zyvex Instruments, which von Ehr sold to DCG Systems.

“What we found is that the technology didn’t develop quite as fast as we had anticipated, and our need for people wasn’t quite as high as we had hoped it would be,” von Ehr says. When immediate profits didn’t materialize, nanotech investors moved on to cleantech. “The number of nanotech companies in Texas has shrunk quite a bit,” von Ehr adds, “and some that participated are no longer in existence.”

Sematech; Texas State Technical College, Waco; and Austin Community College are also listed as TNWDI participants. They later created a nanoelectronics workforce development initiative to train technicians. With $4 million in state money, their NanoScholar Internship program operated in 2006 and 2007, but it has stopped accepting applications.

Some programs still continue in Texas. For example, the Texas Workforce Commission has helped support the Nanomaterials Design Commercialization Center at Tarrant County College. NDCC has a few corporate and several university sponsors. A $1.5 million grant, which ended in August 2009, was used to build on the work of TNWDI, a commission spokeswoman says. Tarrant has received another grant to provide internships for first-year college students.

For any initiative whose members are trying to plan ahead, it is not clear when and what jobs will emerge and in which industries. Recent surveys, such as one conducted by the National Association of Manufacturers, Oracle, and the consulting firm Deloitte, indicate that about half of all companies are seeing moderate to severe shortages in skilled production, especially in the life sciences, energy, and aerospace/defense sectors. Although these may be the hot job areas, they may not offer new jobs, just replacements for outdated ones.

“It will be interesting to see the actual needs of companies,” Monica says. He tries to keep an eye on job postings, some of which can be found on nanotech websites, such as NanoWerk and TinyTechJobs. Anecdotally, he says, “I have been seeing a need for heavily credentialed people with experience, but I don’t see many entry-level positions being advertised, although there are a lot of fellowships and postdoc positions being offered.

“Big companies probably have their needs covered or can pretty easily find what they need, while small companies may not have the funds to hire people or, when they do, they want someone more established,” he says. “It may be another five to 10 years before there is a real need for new graduates.”

Others, such as Roco and Murday, see nanotechnology as an opportunity for growth, albeit in competition with other countries around the globe. “If the economy starts to boom,” Murday says, “I think nanoscale science and technology will play a big role in making that happen.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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