MONTPELIER >> Workers at the former IBM plant in Vermont are in a high-stakes battle for global dominance in the computer chipmaking industry, a GlobalFoundries official told state lawmakers Thursday in a briefing on the company that acquired the plant last year.
Mike Russo, government and regulatory affairs specialist with GlobalFoundries, said Vermont's skilled and motivated workforce is a big strength.
"How could a technology be in production for 20 years and still be relevant?" Russo asked.
He said IBM and now GlobalFoundries employees in Vermont have "continually innovated, updated, made it relevant and continually own the space" in the computer chip market. "And that's a testament to the people in Burlington, Vermont," he said.
The firm, whose sole shareholder is the government of Abu Dhabi, acquired the former IBM plant outside Burlington, along with the rest of IBM's semiconductor business, including a plant in East Fishkill, New York, nearly 10 months ago. GlobalFoundries already owned facilities in Malta and Albany, New York.
The company's Vermont properties, mainly in Essex Junction, are a key supplier of computer chips to cellphone manufacturers around the world. Russo said GlobalFoundries has been a leader in the manufacture of application-specific integrated circuits for at least two decades, but has not operated in the black since it was created in 2009. It has been able to make big acquisitions of other computer chip manufacturers thanks to the "deep pockets" of the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate, he said.
GlobalFoundries now stands as the No.2 chipmaker in the world, behind Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Russo said, and China has said it wants to become a big player.
The company's 2,700 employees in Vermont is well below the 8,000-member workforce IBM once employed in the state, but they still make the company Vermont's largest for-profit, private-sector employer. The company does extensive business with others in northwestern Vermont and still is seen as the linchpin of the state's economy.
"There's not a governor in recent memory who one of their greatest fears has not been that for whatever reason IBM would decide to get out of the chipmaking business and either sell or just go home," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, as he introduced Russo and others to lawmakers.
Patricia Moulton, secretary of the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said in an interview afterward that her agency is working with the Agency of Education and Department of Labor to improve the training of young Vermonters in math and technology to maintain a strong supply of workers for technology companies.
Another way to keep the company happy might be to make improvements to Route 22-A in western Vermont, the main route between the company's Vermont and New York facilities. Company officials have been lobbying for upgrades to the road, and Russo mentioned the route twice.
When IBM first set up shop in Vermont in the late 1950s, "it wasn't because of 22-A and the roads in and out," Russo quipped.