Cuc Duong is used to being the only female engineer in the room. In 2012 the 24-year-old Vietnam native was the sole woman to complete her electronics and telecommunications engineering program at Da Nang University of Technology, alongside 23 men. But as she finished a two-year program at Portland State University in June, Duong was in the unusual position of having lots of female peers. She was one of 16 women and 5 men in this year’s class of Vietnamese students at the Oregon school, the final class of a three-part program sponsored by Intel (INTC). If more Vietnamese women consider careers in engineering, she says, “I think there will be rapid change in the near future.”
Duong and her classmates are returning to Vietnam, where Intel opened a $1 billion plant in 2010. The facility is Intel’s largest for testing and assembling chips, and the company says its 1,000-employee staff will triple in the next few years. To staff up in a market where engineers are suddenly in hot demand, the chipmaker is turning to women, who, while a big part of Vietnam’s workforce, are underrepresented among the nation’s engineers.
Like South Korea’s LG Electronics (066570:KS), Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology (2354:TT), and other tech companies, Intel is starting to take advantage of Vietnam’s cheap workforce and its location in the heart of fast-growing Southeast Asia. Samsung Electronics (005930:KS) accounted for 18 percent of the country’s exports, according to the official Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper. Samsung says it will make more than 40 percent of its phones in Vietnam by 2015; the government in June approved its $1 billion plan for a plant in Ho Chi Minh City’s tech park.
The high interest from foreign tech companies puts a strain on the Vietnamese skilled workforce. The nation has about 250,000 highly trained IT workers and will need 411,000 by the end of 2018, the official Viet Nam News reported last July. Before Intel opened its facility, it tested 2,000 graduating students for general problem-solving aptitude—and only 90 passed. Of those, 40 had good enough English to make the cut, the company says.
Intel sponsored several scholarship programs to develop the skills of local graduates. “If we want to continue to grow the ecosystem, we need more qualified people in the market,” says Sherry Boger, general manager of Intel’s Vietnam facility. Since launching its Intel Vietnam Study Abroad Program in 2009, the $150 billion company has spent $7 million to sponsor 73 students’ bachelor’s degrees at PSU. With Intel now focused on ramping up production at the Vietnam plant, the company says it won’t be sending more students to Portland. “The program met our need to build a strong foundation of engineering talent,” says Trang Nguyen, Intel’s higher education program manager in Vietnam. “We are now turning our attention towards machine operators as we fill the factory.” Intel also offers scholarships to Vietnamese students at local schools and has sent students to Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s Ho Chi Minh City campus.
For its finale at PSU, Intel increased its efforts to recruit women, following the two male-heavy classes of engineering students it had previously sent to Portland. “It’s important to do everything we can to broaden the talent pipeline,” says spokesman Nick Jacobs. “Not addressing women specifically would be potentially missing an opportunity.” The company held recruiting events for women at Vietnamese universities and arranged for Intel employees to mentor the students sent to PSU.
Duong’s four-person team took second place in this year’s Cornell Cup, a nationwide Intel-sponsored design competition, with a model for a motorbike collision-avoidance system of sensors and cameras. That could come in handy in congested city streets back home. The PSU degrees may also open greater opportunities at Intel. Duong’s classmate Thanh Nguyen says she is glad to see women managers at the company’s Vietnam plant. “It’s a motivation for you to work,” she says.