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September 5th, 2010
Labor Day finds 200,000 unemployed Minnesotans looking for the next big thing
Paul Pennington, 23, knew he wanted to explore a career in science when he graduated from high school.
Chemistry held the most allure for him. "Chemistry is my match over biology and just a tad over physics," he recalled.
He was set on a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering.
But then the world of nanotechnology — the study, measurement and manipulation of material at the molecular and atomic level — cracked open for him in a high school chemistry class while he was reading an assigned book on the subject. When the book's author visited the class to talk up the field, Pennington was lured in. "It was a no-brainer at that point," he said.
He was hooked on a field that is in its infancy. It is an area of explosive growth much like information technology experienced in the 1990s. Today state labor market officials talk about nanotechnology as a sector of jobs that is hard to measure, in part because it cuts across many different types of jobs in math and science.
Estimates of job growth are sketchy. Every physical, biological and electrical property of a material depends on how molecules and atoms are arranged.
The past few decades have seen a surge in the development of microscopes that can measure and observe down to the atomic level. That's driving a need for people with specialized skills.
Companies are not only hiring Ph.D. researchers but also need manufacturing technicians and engineers to figure out how to modify current processes to take into account or take advantage of nano particles or new materials. So says Deb Newberry, director of the nanoscience technology program at Dakota County Technical College, where Pennington earned his degree last year.
The National Science Foundation, which is funding the program, estimates 650,000 jobs will be created nationally in nanotechnology over the next five years. "Dozens of companies in the Twin Cities, in all market segments, are doing research or developing products at the nano scale," Newberry said, ticking off a list of companies — 3M and Boston Scientific among them — that have hired graduates of the program.
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