Hot Wires

A small classroom of South Seattle immigrants helps fuel a domestic electronics renaissance.

In a makeshift classroom on the second floor of King Plaza, a strip mall lined with Asian cafes, video shops, and grocery stores on Martin Luther King Way South, Vietnamese immigrant Xuan Trang pores over a vocabulary test. The 25-year-old, who has lived here for two and a half years, speaks English haltingly. But she's steadily making her way through fill-in-the-blank questions, in which she is expected to know definitions for words like alloy, resistor, and light-emitting diode.

Trang is surrounded by about 15 other students—all immigrants, from places including Cambodia, Nepal, Somalia, and Ethiopia. They are learning to assemble electronics in a free class offered by the Refugee Federation Service Center, a nonprofit organization with an office around the corner from King Plaza.

After their vocabulary test, the students head to a workshop in back, where they practice soldering components onto circuit boards. This involves placing silver-colored wire known as solder at the base of tiny components and melting them together with a metal-tipped soldering iron that lets out gasps of steam. Instructor Kathi Lind comes around inspecting their work, correcting them with easy-to-understand language. "This is wrong; this is right," she says, holding up different examples. When break time comes after an hour of class, most students decide to work straight through it.

Over the past couple of decades, U.S. companies have shipped much of their manual electronics work to countries like these students' homelands, where labor is cheap. And yet, the Refugee Federation has suddenly seen a boom in local electronics hiring, as select electronics companies have sought out niches that offer advantages to domestic manufacturers. Demand for workers has been such that in the past year, the federation has begun offering three daily assembly classes, up from just one.

"Most of the students, as soon as they graduate, they get a job," says Seila Ha, a job-marketing specialist for the federation. In fact, at the end of the last quarter of classes, Ha had to turn away a job placement agency because all of the federation's students had been snapped up by other agencies.

The renewed surge in "insourcing" can also be attributed to Boeing's recent turn of fortunes, as the company has climbed out of a slump to overtake European rival Airbus and design a new plane—the 787 "Dreamliner"—that is proving wildly popular with airlines. Boeing itself doesn't hire from the Refugee Federation and similar training programs, but some of Boeing's nearly 3,000 suppliers in the state do.

This has resulted in jobs that offer starting wages of between $10 and $14 per hour—significantly less than the $25-an-hour-plus union wages earned at Boeing, but still desirable for English-challenged immigrants whose employment options are limited. "Electronic skills are better than other jobs—you can make more money," says Chhajikuong Taing, a 21-year-old Refugee Federation student originally from Cambodia, who currently earns $10 per hour at a factory job making protective containers used for hazardous materials. Three of Taing's King Plaza classmates are fleeing jobs in a hotel, a hospital kitchen, and a Starbucks packaging plant, respectively.

Companies, in turn, draw so eagerly from this hardworking pool of workers—who seem perfectly satisfied with second- or third-tier manufacturing jobs—that it's possible to find local factories filled almost entirely with immigrants.

"We've had great success with immigrants," says David Korma, general manager of Parylene Engineering, a small Kirkland company that coats circuit boards with a protective substance known as parylene. "That's why we keep calling the [federation]."

Workers from the federation, he says, "seem to be well trained. They're diligent, conscientious, and try to please." The fact that they may not speak English fluently is not a problem. "Most of what we do is manual labor," he says. "We don't need them reading anything. We don't need them discussing anything."

Times are good at Parylene Engineering. "We're totally reacting to how aerospace is doing," Korma says. Among Parylene's clients are various Boeing subcontractors, which might use the coated circuit boards, for instance, in sensoring units that detect whether airplane doors are completely shut.

Of the company's 10 employees, six are immigrants. And Korma has just told the Refugee Federation that he wants three or four more workers as soon as he can get them.

On a larger scale, a company called Esterline Korry is also using immigrants to ride the wave of the aerospace boom. "We're constantly growing," says President Gary Dytrt. The company has more than 500 employees, housed in three buildings just south of Lake Union, and builds electronic displays, lighting, and other equipment for the aerospace and defense industries. Currently, Esterline Korry is creating the overhead control panels in the cockpit of Boeing's vaunted 787, which will roll out this summer.

Dytrt estimates that about half his workforce are immigrants. And when a new employee is needed, Dytrt says immigrant workers always seem to find an uncle, an aunt, a brother, or a sister to fill the job.

At TTM Technologies in Redmond, General Manager Joe Ruane is giving a tour of his facility: three blocky, low-slung cream-colored buildings that house a maze of white-walled rooms filled with vats of chemicals and large machines that turn copper and fiberglass plates into intricate circuit boards. He gets a call on his cell phone about a potential order from a client who needs a big batch of product in only five days.

"They're willing to pay double," Ruane says when he hangs up. "These five-day orders—I love them."

Six years ago, TTM was experiencing a downturn, like most of the circuit-board industry, which saw its clients take their work overseas. "Fifty percent of our industry disappeared in two years," says Ruane, an affable man sporting blue chinos and a thick Boston accent. TTM responded by cultivating military clients, which are hard for many foreign companies to work with due to security regulations. And TTM began concentrating on jobs that are either especially complex or require a quick turnaround, neither of which are easily fulfilled by overseas companies that produce mass volumes and have to ship their products back to the States. TTM hit the jackpot with this strategy: With 11 plants nationwide and revenues of $700 million a year, the Santa Ana, Calif., company is now the biggest circuit-board producer in North America.

At the Redmond site, TTM has grown from 300 to 470 employees in four years. The vast majority of them, judging by a walk-through with Ruane, are Asian immigrants. Frong Sida, a group leader who emigrated from Cambodia when she was a child, says that work here suits people who can't read or write well in English.

"Some words, they don't understand; we try to explain it to them and take it slow," she says. "I tell my engineers: Use lots of pictures."

Vietnamese native Thung Lam says he likes the overtime he gets at TTM, and also the month's vacation he has accumulated after 15 years, which he sometimes uses to go back to his homeland. He notes that managers here are accommodating. "Even if you got not enough vacation, the manager will say, 'OK, you can take without pay.'"

"We're competing for employees," Ruane says. Each financial quarter, the company gives every worker a bonus of 2 percent to 3 percent of his or her salary. It has also added a number of new benefits recently, including three extra holidays, tuition reimbursement, and a 401(k) match that has increased from 1 percent to 4 percent of an employee's contribution.

While the company always wants to keep an eye on labor costs in order to keep its overall pricing down, Ruane says it knows it will never compete on price with overseas companies that pay wages of less than a dollar an hour. "We're not even in that game anymore," he says.

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