I’ve dedicated my career to facilitating the health and growth of the electronics manufacturing industry. In this interview with Jim Flis, a boot camp instructor at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire, we discuss a successful and growing effort to provide the next generation of electronics manufacturing staff with the foundation they’ll need to carry the industry into the future. Jim took over the boot camp program about five years and is quite proud of the students and what they’ve accomplished.
Marc Carter: Jim, would you tell us about your own background, and how your boot camp fits into the overall mission at NCC?
Jim Flis: I have a bachelor of science degree in electronics engineering technology, and worked as a principal hardware engineer for Digital Equipment Corporation. My primary work was in the field of data communications (terminals, Ethernet, voice and modems) and TEMPEST work for DEC’s government group. Upon leaving that field, I began working with youth groups, substitute teaching, and as a para-educator in our public school system.
NCC is located in southern New Hampshire on a campus that was first built in 1970. It serves about 1,700 students in multiple programs throughout the school year with 35 associate degree and 22 certificate programs.
The Microelectronics Boot Camp is a certificate program and is a non-credit 400-hour (40 hours a week for 10 weeks) program that teaches die attach/substrate attach and wire bonding with a focus on the microwave manufacturing environment. This program began in 2017, with 27 cohorts (groups) and more than 300 students graduating. I became the instructor in 2018, and have seen 209 students walk across the stage for their certificate. We boast a placement rate of 96% with a retention rate (after one year) of 92%.
Carter: Many in our industry are concerned about having enough properly prepared replacements for the future, especially because we’re already struggling to fill openings.
Flis: This is not a new problem. I have seen this addressed for most of my adult life in one form or another. Every time there is an advancement in technology or techniques, we encounter a situation where we lack skilled people. It’s a longtime societal issue, but in order to address it, we need our industry to become invested in the solution. Without that support and investment, it simply will not happen.
The identified industries need to define specifically what skills and knowledge are required. Further, they need to help the educational facilities with the materials (tools, equipment, raw materials, etc.) needed to properly conduct the desired training. In most cases, these industry members perform such training in-house but realize that they cannot train enough people fast enough, so they seek out other places for this training. I think the biggest problem is that such specialized training is not possible unless they help build a facility for it.
Carter: That sounds like a major undertaking. I know industry partners have been an integral part of this effort from the beginning. Can you tell us how (and with whom) that works?
Flis: In the case of our boot camp, someone had to ask, and perhaps research, how many college campuses have direct (in lab) access to wire and ribbon bonders, bond pull machines, and microelectronic raw materials for practice. It’s likely they discovered the answer is zero. To that end, the industry asking for this training (BAE Systems, in our case) provided the college with the equipment and raw materials to perform the very training for their immediate needs.
Carter: Could you run us through the history of how NCC became involved?
In 2016, BAE representatives met with leaders from many colleges and universities within the state of New Hampshire. Jon Mason, the corporate, community, and continuing education coordinator at NCC, said Nashua would work with BAE to develop a program. Together they defined and discussed the specific desired skills and needed equipment, and determined how to loan equipment and donate raw material to NCC to support this program. Jon coordinated a space on the NCC campus that would make a suitable lab, located an instructor, and looked into how to secure students who wanted to learn something new and exciting. It started with just four students in the first cohort, but today you see the results of those efforts.
While it began, frankly, as a feeder program as BAE grew its New Hampshire manufacturing facilities, by the eighth cohort, this program was opened to the rest of the microelectronics industry in southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts. We now service over 25 companies, but none of this would have happened without the investment made initially with one company.
Carter: The early days of these kinds of efforts are critical. Could you outline the growth of the program (numbers, scope, etc.), especially how you navigated those first few “cohorts” (group of students)?
Flis: I was not involved in the early days of this program, having joined in 2018 with Cohort No. 10. Early on, the structure of the program was easier to establish, as we only had to address a single company’s need. BAE was able to clearly define what they needed the students to learn, so it was easy to tailor the class to meet that need. Because most everything being taught was based on BAE company specifications, it often did not match what other industry members implemented, so as we serviced more of the industry, we made some significant changes that would allow for continued success.
Therefore, one of our earliest changes was switching our focus to MIL-STD-883 as our manufacturing standard of choice—the entire industry followed that specification as a very minimum. We continue to keep a close eye on industry needs and make modifications to implement those changes. Additionally, the program has evolved as new training techniques are tried and perfected, resulting in a better trained recruit for the industry.
Carter: Can you describe the types of students who are most likely to attend, how the program is structured, and what skill sets you've focused on?
Flis: We seek out and accept a very diverse student body; they are primarily walk-ins who either learned about us via the news media, word-of-mouth from previous students, or from a state program, such as MY TURN, which partners students with academic and state agencies in career development. We have had students fresh out of high school as well as students in their 50s looking to make a change in their careers. All economic, social, and education levels have gone through our boot camp, and it’s one of the things about this program that keeps me excited to continue teaching.
The program begins with introducing the student to the terminology, tools, devices, and techniques. They sit at a microscope and manipulate microelectronic components on the first day and progress to more challenging manipulations through this first week. By the second week, they begin practicing wire and ribbon bonding, working with epoxy (die attach), and being introduced to skills they will need in the coming weeks. By the third week, students receive a project due by the end of the week. In addition, they practice the skills for a project in the fourth week.
Each week the challenges become greater and the access to tools and equipment grows. Project 1 is die attach, project 2 is bonding, and project 3 is rework. Everything is performed on a flat wafer of gold-plated ceramic. Starting with project 4, the students work inside an enclosure (module) that better reflects what they will see in the industry. By this time, they have been exposed to a wide range of tools (bonders, bond pull machines, electronic fluid dispenser, and more). These later projects serve to expose the students to more challenges and devices, including pedestals, MMICs, air coils, diodes, thin film resistors, and beam leads. By graduation time, they should be very comfortable in the lab/manufacturing environment and with their new skills.
Carter: Here’s where you get to brag a little, Jim. Share a success story from this program. How many people have completed the program and how many are involved right now? What do you hear back from your students’ new employers?
Flis: The feedback we get is generally very good. We have had some employers hire students from our program who had less than stellar work ethics and, unfortunately, the program often takes negative feedback for something we have no control over. However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Companies continue to hire our graduates. In our last cohort, some students were getting job offers as early as the second week of the program; by the sixth week, everyone in the class had offers and many had already accepted them.
With regard to stand-out successes, we’ve had several. We had several students who went from living in their cars to now having fulfilling careers and financial security. One of my past students signed papers on her very first house, and she’s just 19 years old. I recall one student in tears who showed up late for class three days in a row due to car troubles, during a week of heavy interviewing. She was concerned that the condition of her car might prevent her from maintaining employment. I explained that she simply needed to call a tow truck and an Uber to get to work. She looked at me incredulously and stated “I can’t afford that!” I responded, “Not now, but you will be in a different place financially quite soon.” Her facial expression indicated she had not looked that far ahead. Three years later, she is still gainfully employed, has a new car, and is feeling much more secure.
I had one student who was pregnant while going through the program and had to miss graduation because she went into labor. She had never missed a day until that last week. Like so many others, her life is stable and she has the beginnings of a long career.
Finally, there have been a number of students in my cohorts that took entry level positions and have now moved up through management and engineering as they discover how many paths are now available to them.
Carter: What growth or expansion projects are you planning? What are the first steps?
Flis: With regard to the microelectronics boot camp, we are always evolving. After each cohort, we review what worked and what needs improvement. Could we have explained things better or introduced future classes to newer technology and techniques?
Case in point: In the past, all work in this boot camp was performed on a flat coupon (gold-plated ceramic disk) so we could expose the students to many challenges with regard to die/substrate attach and bonding. However, it did not reflect real-world assembly inside a metal enclosure. After teaching several cohorts, I was able to develop a reusable enclosure that incorporated a removable base. This allowed students to work in a more realistic environment with real-world challenges. The removable base allowed us, at the end of the cohort, to remove the base (containing all the students’ work) and replace it with a fresh base for the next cohort. The bases are simple aluminum plates (inexpensive) whereas the enclosure walls are machined aluminum and much more costly. To date, these enclosures have been used in 13 cohorts with no sign of wear.
As for other (related) programs, we are currently preparing to hold our first J-STD solder certification course at NCC. This Solder Boot Camp will perform two primary functions: Teach the students how to solder, with practical examples and exercises with enough practice time to hone their new skills, and certify the student to J-STD soldering level.
We are also actively exploring what would be involved in offering a “Test Technician Boot Camp,” where we would train students to perform the tasks necessary to qualify for that position in the industry.
Carter: What message would you like to share about getting involved, either in your project, or others around the country?
Flis: We really have two audiences to address: industry leaders and educators. At NCC, we are always looking for donated (or discounted) tools and raw materials. Local industry can contact Jon Mason through NCC to see how they can help. In return, we provide wall space for a company banner as well as help turning out qualified personnel for their factories. This can be beneficial during the many times local press and news media cover our activities.
As for others who are starting up similar programs (or any other program related to technological manufacturing), manufacturers need to communicate their needs, and educators need to explain their abilities and limitations. Beyond that you will need educators who will truly embrace the value of such training. Additionally, local manufacturers must be able and willing to provide (either via donation or loan) the expensive and specialized equipment necessary for the desired training.
Lastly, both the school and corporations need to establish some form of flow of raw materials. We often receive donations of scrap or out-of-production material for our class, which includes MMICs, thin and thick film resistors, capacitors, coils, beam leads, substrates and more. Without this flow of raw materials we would be unable to perform the high level of training we need to provide.
Carter: Thank you, Jim, for sharing such valuable information.
Flis: Happy to help.
This column originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of SMT007 Magazine.