TDK engineers leave, most for new jobs
The glowing red clock on the wall had flashed the countdown in seconds, minutes and days for months.
By noon, it reached zero.
Time was up for Nevada County’s first semiconductor chip design lab for all but a handful of employees Friday, the official last day of TDK Semiconductor’s Nevada City Design Center. The center’s engineers have trickled out this week after their exit interviews, except for a few who will finish up one last project through May.
The loss of 49 high-paying, high-tech jobs was offset by plans for two new design labs to open later this year in Nevada County. SliceX Inc., a Salt Lake City firm, and Time Domain Corp., of Huntsville, Ala., will each hire 12 TDK employees.
TDK employees also took jobs at other company locations and with Intel. Of the 49 employees, 44 have found new positions, said Grant Shatto, director of engineering for the design lab on New Mohawk Road.
Consequently, the mood at the center has been pretty good, though Shatto said it’s been up and down emotionally for him.
The engineers have avoided the plight of thousands of high-tech workers searching for work after a slowdown hit technology hard. In Santa Clara County, unemployment in February was 7.3 percent, compared with 1.8 percent in February 2001.
“Being engineers, we know statistics, and this is way beyond what the stats predicted,” Shatto said.
He was one of the center’s first employees, “techies” who were tired of Southern California. In 1980, 10 of them set up a communications chip design shop in an office on Searls Avenue, next to Ronaldo’s Pizzeria and Saloon.
Shatto recalled that it was easy to avoid getting wet when he went out for lunch. But the smell of pizza sometimes made it tough to focus on work.
There were other challenges back then, before e-mail or Internet. File sharing was done on a diskette.
But the center, the first chip research and design center in Nevada County, proved that it could be done, said Russ Steele, a technology writer who has served on the Economic Resource Council and Grass Valley/Nevada County Chamber of Commerce. Steele said he is writing a book on how technology developed in Nevada County.
The center demonstrated that it was possible to design chips in Nevada County and build them in Tustin, setting the example for firms to come, such as U.S. Robotics and National Semiconductor.
Once one group of engineers set the example, it was easier for others to sell the same message to their managers, said Steele. In the end, they created a cluster of chip designers, which spawned more communications chip-related businesses.
Even Texas Instruments sent a professor from Texas to check out the area in the mid-1990s, in hopes of capturing some of the talent pool, Steele said.
TDK served as a catalyst of sorts for area high tech, similar to Grass Valley Group’s role in the broadcast equipment sector and other technology. Former TDK alumni can be traced to eight other entities, Shatto said.
A 3Com office was formed by TDK employees, initially known as U.S. Robotics, but was closed earlier this year. Another firm, 2Wire, has TDK employees among its staff, Shatto said.
A party Friday at TDK brought some of the employees back together to share stories and pop a champagne cork as the computer-driven clock counted down the final seconds until noon.
It was set up by – who else but? – engineers after the announcement of the center’s closing was made in October.
People will now probably enjoy some time off then start new pursuits, Shatto said. “People are very excited about moving forward now. This is done; the chapter is closing.”
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