Semiconductor manufacturing is one example of the clean, high-tech jobs Chesterfield is pursuing
Ted Raspiller grew up in Aurora, Ill., a blue-collar city outside Chicago where most young men graduated from high school and immediately went to work in the factories that sustained local economies across the Midwest.
“What you really needed was a good flannel shirt and a good pair of work boots – your neighbor, your dad, your uncle or somebody else got you a job at one of the plants,” recalled Raspiller, president of John Tyler (soon-to-be Brightpoint) Community College, during a recent interview on the Chesterfield Behind the Mic podcast. “Those days are gone in that type of workplace. Now it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Over the past three decades, companies that once made the U.S. a global manufacturing powerhouse have eliminated millions of domestic assembly line jobs by either shipping them overseas in search of cheaper labor or rendering them obsolete through automation.
Those jobs aren’t returning, but a modern form of manufacturing is making a comeback. Amplified by COVID-related supply chain disruptions and geopolitical considerations, federal and state officials are expressing renewed interest in expanding America’s capacity to produce certain items.
Here’s the best part: Advanced manufacturing is highly technical, clean and quiet, and it pays much better than the jobs that were lost.
“We’re not looking for any job that automation will replace. We’re looking for the jobs that automation creates,” said Garrett Hart, director of Chesterfield Economic Development, in a presentation to the Planning Commission last month. “What is being created by automation is no longer line jobs, but sophisticated jobs requiring training and technology to keep the [equipment] running and make it more efficient. Those are the jobs we’re trying to attract.”
At the direction of the Board of Supervisors, the county’s Economic Development Authority acquired the 2,000-acre Upper Magnolia Green property in December 2020 with a plan to rezone it for development as an employment-generating technology village.
The county’s timing is fortuitous. Not only is the Richmond-to-Petersburg corridor emerging as a major mid-Atlantic hub for pharmaceutical manufacturing, both chambers of Congress have approved separate versions of legislation that aims to significantly boost domestic production of computer chips.
The Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act includes almost $100 billion to support U.S. semiconductor manufacturing, research and development and bolster supply chain security for high-tech products.
Center for Workforce Development at John Tyler Community College's Chester campus
Virginia’s former and current governor also have requested about $180 million in funding this year for the state’s Business Ready Sites program, which helps localities with the up-front costs of preparing large, project-ready industrial sites.
Since 2016, Virginia has lost out on more than 47,000 direct jobs and $115 billion in capital investment, as well as an estimated $300 million in annual state tax revenue, mainly due to the lack of such sites.
Most recently, Intel announced plans to construct a $20 billion semiconductor plant and create about 3,500 high-tech jobs in New Albany, Ohio.
The 1,700-acre western section of Upper Magnolia Green was one of the final five locations considered for that project.
The average annual salary for U.S. semiconductor manufacturing is $140,608, or nearly three times Chesterfield’s countywide average of about $53,000.
That figure is $122,722 for research and development jobs, or 133% above the countywide average.
For pharmaceutical manufacturing, the average salary is $74,256. That’s still 41% higher than the average of all existing jobs in Chesterfield.
“These aren’t ‘struggle to make a living,’ grimy, dark environments. They are state-of-the-art, preferred places to work,” Raspiller said.
Community College Workforce Alliance's advanced manufacturing mobile learning lab
Through its Community College Workforce Alliance with J. Sargeant Reynolds, John Tyler is helping to develop the skilled talent needed by local companies and create pathways to rewarding high-tech careers for students.
Of the 2,000-plus industry credentials awarded by John Tyler during the 2020-21 school year, more than 500 were in advanced manufacturing.
Meanwhile, enrollment in its various degree-track programs was down 10%, but the number of students seeking credentials in high-demand fields increased by 54%.
“By far the biggest demand we have from industry right now is ‘Find us talent pipelines,’” said Elizabeth Creamer, vice president of workforce development and credential attainment at John Tyler. “There has never been a better time to be a high school graduate or a community college student, a young person or a middle-aged person, looking for a new career.”
In collaboration with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, John Tyler is creating a talent accelerator to prepare technicians needed by three pharmaceutical companies that are ramping up in Petersburg.
The new Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Technician program will have three tracks: an entry-level credential, a career studies certificate or an associate’s degree for those who want to transfer to a four-year institution and pursue a career as pharmaceutical manufacturing engineers.
“What we’re doing is creating an ecosystem here that is going to develop that pipeline of workers,” Raspiller said. “They’ve told us beginning in fall 2023, they’re going to need to hire 100 [technicians] a year. That’s just the three companies here.
“Here’s the beautiful thing about it: You don’t have to pick right out of the chute that you want to be an engineer. You can start with the entry-level credential, get the job and work with the employer to pay for the rest of your education,” he added. “That’s one way we get around this incredible student loan debt.”
Chesterfield is one of only two localities in Virginia that has two community college campuses within its borders. As the county seeks to attract more advanced manufacturing and create high-paying jobs, its partnership with John Tyler will continue to be a vital asset for years to come.