Gov. Hunt tries to balance the future on computer chip

North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. has seen the future, and it is exquisitely tiny.

He aims to make his state the East Coast center of the semiconductor industry. The new Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC), a research and training facility in Research Triangle Park, will be the focus of this drive.

MCNC will provide training in semiconductor technology for students of the three triangle universities - the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke in Durham, and North Carolina State in Raleigh. It will also do a certain amount of contract research.

The center is intended to ensure the state has the largest-possible labor force trained in microelectronics technology in order to attract semiconductor firms. Another goal is keeping up to date with a technology with ''generational changes'' virtually every couple of years.

Ground has just been broken for the 79,000-square-foot building, expected to be complete in early 1984. MCNC's work is already under way at an ''interim fabrication facility'' on the North Carolina State University campus and at facilities belonging to the Research Triangle Institute, a contract research agency in the park.

George Herbert, who has been named chairman of MCNC, hastens to point out that the decision to build the center was ''not an attempt to 'buy GE.' ''

But he acknowledges that a couple of years ago General Electric was seriously considering basing its semiconductor operations in Research Triangle Park. Awareness of this helped spur local officials to think about making a more definite commitment to this new technology.

Plans were then formulated for MCNC. It's a joint venture of the Research Triangle Institute, the three triangle universities, and the two other state universities with engineering programs, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. The idea here, as in other triangle joint ventures, was to build something bigger than anything any of the schools could build alone.

Governor Hunt has been big on microelectronics throughout the five years he's been in office because, as he says, ''That's where the jobs are going to be in the future -- the good-paying jobs.''

Last July he got the state legislature to ante up $24.4 million for MCNC over the 1981-1983 biennium, covering building costs and operating expenses. This sum, supplemented by grants from universities, industry, foundations, and government agencies, is the largest financial commitment any state has yet made to microelectronics technology.

Meanwhile, there has been a happy ending to at least one chapter of the story: General Electric did decide to move its semiconductor operations to the park; prototype production is to start soon at its new $100 million plant. GE has also become MCNC's first corporate affiliate.

''We didn't just bumble into this, as you might imagine,'' the governor says of the microelectronics venture. The electronics and electrical segment of the economy is already the No. 4 manufacturing employer across the state, accounting for some 50,000 jobs, with heavy concentrations throughout the entire Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.

And the state has a long experience in semiconductor technology going back two decades. By the mid-60s, MCNC chairman Herbert points out, triangle university faculty members and park researchers were meeting informally under the weighty title of the Center for the Study and Synthesis of Semiconductor Compounds.

MCNC is based on the same principle as the park: using a research center as an engine to pull the whole state into greater prosperity.

Meanwhile, the flow of high technology into the state continues. Research Triangle Park is always being looked over by prospective tenants, and the state's present level of microelectronics expertise is drawing firms. Texas Instruments (TI) has just bought a couple of sites for plants in the state -- one in the triangle area, the other in Asheville.

Dr. Herbert recalls that when he got the call from a state commerce department official notifying him of the TI purchase, he was meeting with representatives of another out-of-state semiconductor firm that was considering locating in the park - and an MCNC recruiting team was off making calls in the high-technology stronghold of Massachusetts.

Hewlett Packard has bought a site in nearby Wake Forest, and Massachusetts-based Analog Devices has announced expansion in Greensboro. It doesn't make for the sort of boom whose proportions are readily measurable, but Dr. Herbert says the number of semiconductor businesses looking for new sites in the triangle ''is very high, especially given the economy.''

Meanwhile, the academic community waxes enthusiastic. ''The microelectronics center will be an opportunity for industrial-quality facilities in an academic environment,'' says Dr. Craig Casey of Duke University, a microelectronics expert. ''The microelectronics center has allowed us to get new courses up and going.''

There have also been new faculty appointments -- in many cases joint appointments of MCNC and one of the universities. One particular coup was hiring Richard Fair, a silicon fabrication expert, away from Bell Laboratories in New Jersey to be vice-president of MCNC. The silicon chip is widely considered the steam engine of today's second Industrial Revolution. But demand for engineers and technicians trained in semiconductor technology is racing far ahead of supply.

Hence a fierce rivalry for businesses and workers is developing, especially with California and Massachusetts, which have both announced new programs in microelectronics. (North Carolina officials sniff at the Bay State's proposed $ 40 million microelectronics package as ''just in the proposal stage,'' and describe California Gov. Jerry Brown's recent microelectronics proposal as ''really rather modest.'')

The quality-of-life factor may also help North Carolina. ''No one is going to sacrifice a professional career to have sunshine all year,'' says Dr. Casey. But as the state's technical base improves, lower living costs, lack of congestion, and Sunbelt climate may give North Carolina an edge.

But for all the plans to train microelectronics engineers at the triangle universities, the weak link in the chain is likely to be the supply of engineering technicians with two-year associate degrees from community colleges. These workers are particularly important in the production segment of microelectronics, which North Carolina is going after. The research and development segment, on the other hand, is likely to stay largely in California.

Research Triangle Park's need for new electronics engineering technicians has been projected at 643 a year through 1985 -- not counting those needed by GE. Dr. Phail Wynn Jr., the youthful president of Durham Technical Institute, notes that his school and its Raleigh counterpart, Wake Technical College, turn out less than 100 such technicians a year between them.

Some of the shortfall can be made up by hiring graduates of community colleges outside the immediate Triangle area, or by ad hoc on-the-job-training programs. But otherwise, jobs will go begging and firms will not be able to expand as they would like, Dr. Wynn predicts.

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