When one considers hotbeds of high-tech education and training, Elyria, Ohio, isn’t the first place that comes to mind.

Nestled at the forks of the Black River in northwestern Ohio, the city of 55,000 is home to Lorain County Community College. Last fall, LCCC was awarded a $5.5 million grant to purchase equipment and technical support for its new SMART (Sensor/Microsystems Advanced Packaging and Reliability Testing) Commercialization Center, which will concentrate on the production of high-tech sensors. The school used the money to purchase a wire bonding line and, through a partnership with Cleveland State University, LCCC plans to develop a curriculum that will launch the careers of aspiring engineers, while also generating fees from renting the center to local businesses.

LCCC’s budding enterprise should serve as a model for our industry. But the job of underwriting the next generation of designers and engineers doesn’t rest solely with academia. Several companies have developed in what some cases have become extensive collaborations with local schools around the world.

At its Weymouth, UK, plant, DEK offers a number of apprenticeships in engineering and operations. During the four-year program, apprentices spend time with each department in the business, which helps them make an educated choice about their future careers.

For the 2010-11 school year, DEK chose four apprentices from 50 applicants from local colleges. (Whereas there is no obligation, the company does tend to employ its apprentices upon graduation.)

The selection process involves a review of each applicant’s technical and academic education standards, extracurricular activities, with an emphasis on ones where communication is required. Applicants are then asked to give a presentation, followed by a formal interview, team-building exercises, and an aptitude test. The judging criteria are not just academic, explains Karen Moore-Watts, director of marketing. “Personality and ability to communicate and work within a team are also things that are very important to us.”

Elsewhere in central Europe, DEK and other SMT suppliers put on two-week training programs and workshops in conjunction with local universities, again aimed at giving prospective engineers a fuller understanding of electronics manufacturing.

In China, DEK and Flextronics’ Tsinghua University lab, in concert with Tsinghua University in Beijing, the second-ranked China engineering program, are proposing a scholarship and summer internship. DEK also offers a summer internship whereby three to five students spend several (paid) weeks working in the company’s labs in Shenzhen.

“It’s very much a company ethos; it’s just what we do,” says Moore-Watts. “It’s a very positive win-win scenario.”

DEK tends to focus on finding and nurturing budding engineers. Another approach is to spread knowledge while garnering a measurable return by sponsoring research using university labs, thus leveraging existing infrastructure (and not eating up precious internal lab resources). In the US, materials giant Henkel does exactly that, funding several specific R&D programs at universities, including University of California branches in Irvine, Berkeley and San Diego, plus Georgia Tech, Auburn and the University of Connecticut.

In most cases, the programs revolve around research of specific interest to the company. At UC-Irvine, for example, Henkel over the past five years has funded three programs specifically related to high power or high thermal conductivity. Programs may last one to two years, and are very focused, with specific end-dates and deliverables, says Dr. Michael Todd, vice president of product development and engineering. Although some of the work is published, most is for internal use only. Henkel will typically have between 10 and 12 programs underway at any given time, and company funds often are supplemented with government grants to support one to two graduate students.

“One area that it benefits is if it is an area that we don’t have certain capability. For instance, UC-Irvine has specific test designs that we don’t have in-house,” Todd says.

Each program is assessed on its ability to deliver the desired data, if not to launch a commercial product. Henkel assigns a team to manage each project, and a steering committee reviews all programs at least every other month. “The ones we tend to think of as successes are meeting milestones and delivering the data we set out to ascertain,” Todd says. “If I think of a program that failed, we didn’t really set the deliverables.”

In China, the company is working on similar efforts with Shanghai University, Fudong University and Yokohama University of Science and Technology. In Europe, there are programs in Himmel-Hempstead, UK, and others in Germany.

Building and maintaining an industry is not the job of any individual or school or company, and it certainly isn’t a task only for the IBMs and Ciscos. It doesn’t take millions of dollars to achieve a long-lasting, rewarding program. Pick a champion, agree on a set of metrics and parameters, and start spreading the word.

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