Educators and students say programs at Portland Community College are bridging a skills gap.

COURTESY PHOTO: ESPEN SWANSON - Rep. Suzanne Bonamici visits a classroom at Portland Community College's campus in Hillsboro.U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici visited the intersection of public high schools and private industry at Portland Community College in Hillsboro on Monday, June 6.

The congresswoman from northwest Oregon is hoping to bring $910,000 to the school's semiconductor and advanced manufacturing programs, which aligns with local K-12 curriculums and in turn feeds the workforce at Intel and other local technology firms.

"Community colleges play a significant role in getting people into the workforce whether it be semiconductor manufacturing, nursing, the people who are going to be building our infrastructure, it's a great fit for a lot of people to start in community college," said Bonamici. "What we need to do is make sure community college is affordable and accessible."

Bonamici herself is a graduate of Lane Community College in Eugene. She went on to earn a bachelor's and law degree from the University of Oregon.

The funding is part of a federal community projects program which allows representatives to request funding for up to 15 projects.

Bonamici said her office received over 70 applications for the program and has requested more than $35 million for fiscal year 2023 across 15 projects. For fiscal year 2022, all of her local projects were fully funded, and she is "hopeful" the same will be true this time around.

The Portland Community College funding is earmarked for "tuition scholarships, equipment, and basic needs support and professional development support of educators and faculty".

During a roundtable discussion, students took the opportunity to decry outdated training equipment.

"By Intel standards, it's archaic. By the rest of the industry, it's currently what's in use," instructor Rich Mikulak said.

Forest Grove High School's mechatronics program offers four dual-credit classes and is designed to prepare students for industry and further schooling.

"The industry is definitely hiring younger, and earlier in the educational process. It used to be you have to have a two-year degree to get the job, and now it's a high school diploma, and they say, 'We want you to go to school while you're working for us,'" Forest Grove High School teacher John Worst said.

He added, "I think our challenge now is reaching students when they're younger, because students develop an identity of who they are academically before they come to high school."

The microelectronics technology program at Portland Community College offers three different associate's degrees with job placement the college calls "close to 100%."

Some students are hired for part-time apprenticeships out of high school while continuing to study at PCC. Others are hired at Intel with a high school degree and encouraged to go back to school to open up opportunities for advancement.

"I'm still in school and working full-time. It's difficult, but it's rewarding" said Emily Mom, who immigrated to Oregon from Cambodia at age 12, graduated from Century High School in 2014 and now works as a manufacturing technician at Intel. "I work night shifts and am hoping for a two-year degree to take about four years to finish. In a week, I might have 48 work hours and 36 hours of school."

Mikulak, who graduated from the program himself in 2004 and spent 23 years as a technician at Intel before switching to teaching in 2019, says while the education and work balance is tough, the job security and potential for growth makes it worthwhile.

"I worked nights my last five years at Intel. It's brutal. It's not easy. What Emily is going through is definitely not easy," Mikulak said. "But there is more than enough demand in this industry. You get through this program and you're making $60,000 as your base salary. That doesn't take into account bonuses, overtime, benefits and all of that."

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