Training U.S. Workers for Nanotech Revolution Is No Small Thing

A few months ago, I rather pessimistically wrote that U.S. workers were unprepared for the nanotech revolution. Today, I’m seeing some signs of hope.

First, though, some background. The United States produces a great number of nanotech Ph.D.s, but these researchers are not the ones who are going to run the equipment at these new nanotech companies that spin out of the research.

Earlier this year, I spoke to a couple of folks at a Chicago-area company called NanoProfessor, which sells a relatively low-cost kit of educational and nanomanufacturing tools. The company reports that it is seeing the most active interest from developing nations, whose governments have no problem spending extra cash to encourage nanotech research. Systems are selling in Brazil, Colombia, Turkey, China, and India. The company says these countries are serious about training the next generation of nanotech workers — not only researchers.

Through these tools, developing nations can tailor nanotech’s development to their own needs. We’re seeing this in Israel, where the focus is on water purification; in India, where some emphasis is placed on preventing and curing malaria; and even in Iran, where there is a vigorous government-supported nanotech research initiative that the Iranians actually credit international sanctions for encouraging. With a homegrown industry, nanotech companies do not need to compete internationally and can focus purely on local needs.

In Nigeria, the government is urging further development of nanotechnology as a way of cleaning up after decades of environmental abuse by oil and gas companies. In Suzhou, China, the Nano-Polis project will train tens of thousands of workers in nanotechnology.

We can argue all we want about the value of government investment in any single technology, but remember that nanotech is not any single technology at all and the government needn’t choose winners and losers. So, before any Solyndra comparisons are made, let me explain why this is different.

A misunderstanding of what nanotech is — or has the potential to become — lies at the heart of what is wrong with much of nanotech reporting today. It reflects the hopes and fears and levels of cynicism of the beholder. I hear far too much, by people who should know better, how nanotech is simply chemistry or simply biology or simply chip size.

In reality, nanotech is all these things and much more. And, likely a generation or two from now, the word “nanotech,” itself, will become redundant since it will describe pretty much how everything is made and tailored to specific uses. It will be the composition of the building material that surrounds you, the specialized material in the body of the car you drove to work today, the electronics that control it, the food you eat, the medicines that keep you healthy … and more.

So an investment in training of nanotech workers does not pick any individual company or technology. It simply ensures that U.S. workers are ready to be hired.

When it comes to nanotechnology, the folks over at Penn State get it. Back in 2008, they launched the Nanotechnology Application and Career Knowledge (NACK) Network using a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation. They recently received another $4.3 million to continue to develop the workforce that will be needed for nanotechnology industry workers.

The South Bend Tribune recently ran an excellent story with more details on the career network and what Ivy Tech is doing with the $165,000 it’s been awarded to join the NACK network. The Tribune reports:

The new program will allow students to devote a full summer immersed in nanotechnology studies, said David Brinkruff, dean of Ivy Tech’s Schools of Technology and Applied Science/Engineering. Some students may choose to pursue the full two-year nanotechnology associate’s degree program, and others may just attend for a summer study immersion and major in another field, he said.

There may not be immediate demand for nanotechnology technicians in this region, but there will be as the field continues to grow, Brinkruff said. “We’re ahead of the demand,” he said.

“It will allow people to be able to gain skills in an area that is going to become very important to the local economy,” he said. More here

Public-private partnerships in the Albany, NY, area are starting to pay off, with the University at Albany’s NanoCollege helping to supply workers to the region’s burgeoning nanotech industry. In Albany, nanotech means electronics. At Research Triangle in North Carolina, the universities are feeding trained nanotech workers into the region’s pharmaceutical industry.

So are U.S. workers prepared? Well, we’re getting there. Still, as Gwyneth Shaw reports in the New Haven Independent, it’s all a bit piecemeal, with some states doing better than others in forcing the workforce-training issue.

It will take a true public-private partnership, on a national scale, to prepare U.S. workers for what’s next. If not, well, other nations are already filling in the gap.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage assembled from multiple images.)