IRG1-7: Divided Labor and Stratified Opportunity in American Nanomanufacturing: The Paradox of the Middle-Skilled

(Amy E. Slaton)


This research centers on the study of sub-baccalaureate nanotechnology education in the United States.  As part of a larger study of community college and university programming for "nanotechnician" workforce preparation, it considers curricula; educational materials (including instruments, textbooks, lab kits, etc.); and pedagogical exchanges among instructors, publishers, and other stakeholders.

Nanoscale manufacturing, an emerging sector in the United States encompassing biotechnology, pharmaceutical, electronics and other industrial enterprises, has formulated itself along a familiar organization of labor: production operations are minutely divided, with mechanization and automation paramount.  From the vantage point of labor history, today’s cleanroom technicians fabricate medical devices and semiconductors much in the manner that assembly line workers produced Model-T Fords one hundred years ago.

As Slaton’s previous research has shown, outsourcing notwithstanding, American industrial leaders and economic planners project a growing domestic nanosector and excitedly promise many such jobs in production and quality control.  The segmented nature of this new nano-related workforce is confirmed by vocal demands by employers and economic policy makers for more “middle skilled” nanoworkers, a stratum seen to possess competencies “above” routine fabrication tasks and “below” expert design or management. Such nanotechnicians are said accordingly to require “more than high school” but “less than college,” giving rise to dozens of two-year nanotech degree programs. Thus, employers and educators, often with government support, have together delineated a recipe for workers equipped with cutting-edge, esoteric knowledge. Crucially, however, that knowledge is to be deployed within a system of constrained occupational opportunity. 

Of particular importance are exceptional cases in which instructors, local employers, and students have transgressed the strict segmentation of nanomanufacturing labor.  In a very few instances, shop-floor workers have been acknowledged to possess dynamic bodies of skill and knowledge. Here, the technicians’ experiences of fabrication directly inform the work of product designers and process engineers. The technicians’ assigned responsibilities, and in one case even their job descriptions and wages, have expanded as a result. How does such mutability come about and why so rarely?  Do these exceptions prove the rule or suggest a way forward to more equitable industrial employment conditions in high-tech manufacturing?

In this reporting period, Slaton continued research centered on promotional and self-assessment documents produced by makers of micro- and nanotech educational materials; study of the materials themselves; and publications by educators involved in the design or use of these materials. She interviewed an industrial liaison to community college manufacturing programs (Philadelphia region) and the director of a MEMS Technician Associate Degree program (Albuquerque). Slaton has also contacted other administrators and instructors to set up additional interviews. Finally, she met with NIST personnel responsible for standards-related education and attended meetings of ISO working groups on nano-scale metrology, instrumentation and nomenclature in high-tech manufacturing (Washington DC).

At Drexel University, Slaton developed and taught a course on "Nanotechnology in Society" for the Master's Program in Science, Technology and Society. In this reporting period she has also published columns on so-called high-tech workforce education in "" and continued to produce the blog "" on issues of diversity and educational inclusion in science and engineering.