hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Powering the American dream

Chip plant draws immigrant workers, adds international flavor in Saratoga



Contributing writer

Haiting Wang was happy to show off the new two-story structure he will soon call home.

Standing in front of his still-under-construction house last month, he was flanked by a backhoe and a workers’ scaffold as a symphony of hammers rang out against the otherwise serene landscape of the new suburban subdivision.

“In China, where I’m from, 2 million people in one place are considered a small city, a lot of people living on top of each other,” Wang said. “Now we’re in the country.”

Wang, 37, works in the research and development department at GlobalFoundries, the sprawling new computer-chip manufacturing plant a few miles away in the town of Malta. The semiconductor plant opened in December and is expected to employ 1,800 workers by the end of this year.

In September, GlobalFoundries revealed plans for a new three-story manufacturing research center that will bring its total employment at the site to 3,000. And GlobalFoundries, its complex developed with help of more than $1 billion in state incentives, is just the first tenant of the Luther Forest Technology Campus, a 1,400-acre property in Malta and Stillwater that state and local economic development officials say could one day host 10,000 workers.

Like Wang, many of the new workers drawn to the GlobalFoundries plant are from Asia. Travis Bullard, a spokesman for the company, didn’t respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story, but information gleaned from other sources suggests that perhaps half of the more than 1,600 workers hired so far are from overseas.

Many are buying homes in the region. Some of Wang’s co-workers at GlobalFoundries, in fact, will soon become his neighbors as their homes in the same new housing subdivision are completed.

Before coming to Saratoga County, Wang had worked for Chartered Semiconductor, a Singapore-based semiconductor foundry that merged with GlobalFoundries in late 2009. Last November, he came to the United States with his wife, Li Zheng, who, like Wang, grew up in China. The couple initially rented a home in the town of Halfmoon, and, this summer they welcomed their first child, Leo.

“We have a new house, a new baby, a new car,” Zheng said. “Everything is new.”

The couple learned basic English in China, where it was taught in middle school, and expanded on their language skills while living in Singapore, where English is spoken widely.

Changing demographics

Peter Staniels, a broker-owner at Weichert Realtors Northeast Group and manager of the group’s office in Clifton Park, said the chip plant is bringing a new wave a diversity to Saratoga County, which historically has been overwhelmingly white.

“There is an international effect,” Staniels said. “We’ve been seeing the ongoing effect of GlobalFoundries, and since they went on line, we have a much higher Asian influx of highly skilled people.”

Staniels said the countries of origin for immigrant workers coming to the chip plant have changed as the plant has taken shape and started operation.

“In the beginning, most of the people we were handling were Europeans,” he said. “All of us a sudden, nearly all are Chinese people.”

To meet the needs of these customers, Staniels’ office has a Chinese broker who speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese.

The chip plant’s workers typically look for new homes as they prepare to move their families here from overseas.

“Often the worker comes here first and may be here for months,” Staniels explained. “The families follow six, eight, 10 months later.”

Staniels and others say the arrival of all these new families has been a huge economic boost to the county.

“The town of Clifton Park and the county of Saratoga has benefited,” Staniels said. “Certainly this office has benefited tremendously. As of October 1, we have doubled the amount of closed business that we had in the entire year of 2010. Fifty percent of our sales this month – that’s 14 of 28 - involved foreign nationals buying homes locally.”

That list includes workers from China, Japan, South Korea and Burma.

In terms of style, some prefer townhouses, but most choose to live in recently built subdivisions in Clifton Park and Halfmoon.

“A much smaller percentage look at older homes,” Staniels said.

But the influx of foreign workers doesn’t sit well with some owners of existing homes. Staniels said he had a discussion with one potential seller who said flatly that he didn’t want to sell his home to a foreigner.

“He said, ‘They’re coming here and taking our jobs,’” Staniels recalled.

Staniels, however, said he’s been told there aren’t enough people locally with the education and training required for some jobs at the chip plant.

High-tech education

There are local educational programs in place that seek to change that, however.

Last year, the Ballston Spa school district debuted its clean technologies and sustainable industries program, which aims to provide local students with the tools necessary to compete for 21st century jobs like those at GlobalFoundries. The program, conducted in collaboration with Hudson Valley Community College, provides high school students the opportunity to earn more than 22 college credits by attending studies at the college’s TEC-SMART facility, which is located at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority complex in Malta.

At the Shenendehowa school district in the Clifton Park area, officials anticipate increases in the student population for the next 15 to 20 years, largely related to the emergence of the nanotechnology industry at the Luther Forest complex and at the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

Because of the influx of GlobalFoundries workers and their families, the Shenendehowa district already has experienced a sharp increase in students registered in its English-as-a-second-language – or ESL – program. Of the 21 different languages represented in the district’s ESL program, the single largest language of origin is Chinese, with Urdu, which is spoken in Pakistan and India, a distant second, district officials said.

“The cultural expectation has been raised a bit, and it has raised the need for better education,” said Paul Sausville, the town supervisor in Malta.

Sausville, a Republican, said the development of GlobalFoundries has spurred the growth of ancillary businesses, such as suppliers. But the supervisor said he doesn’t share the “boom town mentality” of some boosters of the Luther Forest complex. The influx of new workers has been spread out over many communities and absorbed by the entire region, he said.

“For the most part, I think the notion of there being major changes is exaggerated,” he said. “But we had been losing jobs, and we’re very fortunate to have GlobalFoundries in offsetting the loss of jobs.”

Cultivating college links

Even if the influx of new workers at GlobalFoundries is dispersed among several area towns in a way that makes them relatively invisible, the population is growing, and it is a well-educated one, said Pete Bardunias, president of the Southern Saratoga Chamber of Commerce.

Saratoga County already was one of the fastest growing in the state, adding 10 percent to its population in the past decade. According to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 94.5 percent of Saratoga County’s 220,000 residents are white, 2 percent are Asian and 1.7 percent are black. The county’s Asian population, although still small, doubled in the past decade.

Bardunias said there is an opportunity, particularly among young people, to keep high-tech knowledge in the region by connecting education with jobs.

“They are coming, and it’s not just GlobalFoundries,” Bardunias said. “It’s also what is being done by our universities -- on a global scale.”

The development of GlobalFoundries and other high-tech businesses in the region offers an opportunity to retain some of the talented students from area colleges who traditionally have left the region after graduating, he said.

“Colleges deal with students who come from all over the world, and if they don’t get a job with what they have learned here, all that education leaves,” he said. “We also have our local students who make the decision to go elsewhere. The question is how do we get this top-notch talent -- whether they come from Clifton Park or Croatia -- how do we get them to make their mark on the world here?

“We’ve coined the phrase Tech Valley, and there are a lot of businesses here who could be working with this student talent,” Bardunias continued. “There is a lot of potential.”

Magnet for development?

The GlobalFoundries plant got its start in 2006, when Advanced Micro Devices agreed to become the first company to build at the Luther Forest tech park. Before that, county and state economic development officials had spent six years preparing and marketing the tech park as a site for semiconductor manufacturing.

As the project advanced, Advanced Micro Devices spun off the manufacturing facility in a joint venture with the government of Abu Dhabi to create GlobalFoundries. The first few hundred workers began to arrive about 18 months ago.

In anticipation of the chip plant and the many new workers it would attract, developers have been pursuing a wave of residential, commercial and mixed-use projects in Saratoga County and beyond.

Expanded medical and transportation services in southern and central Saratoga County are now being developed with a goal of serving the tech park’s expanding work force.

Saratoga Hospital, for example, owns the 140-acre Saratoga Medical Park in Malta, where it is building a $17.5 million urgent care facility in a joint venture with Albany Medical Center.

“We bought the property before GlobalFoundries was a thought in anybody’s mind,” said Kevin Ronayne, the hospital’s vice president for operations and facilities.

“It was a good decision to go there at the time, and the fact that GlobalFoundries went in makes it an even better decision,” Ronayne said. “If you were to draw a circle in a 10-mile radius around Saratoga Springs, and draw a 10-mile circle around that community, there are twice as many people in the new one.”

Based on the expectation of changing demographics, Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus organized a committee to evaluate what kind of changes and improvements municipalities can make to meet the county’s growing diversity of new residents.

The goal, he said, it to make the county’s communities more attractive to new residents arriving in the area for jobs at GlobalFoundries.

The city of Saratoga Springs is an ideal target right now because of its walkable downtown and cultural attractions, Shimkus said.



Your Ad could be Here