Luong Tran, a former second lieutenant in the Vietnamese army, now lives in Virginia and works on the production line at Automata, a Reston maker of circuit boards that computer companies use to mount electronic components.
Each workday, Tran feeds hundreds of boards into a bath of thick green fluid in a laminating machine at Automata. He has had the job for four years. "We have a lot of things to learn in this area, and I don't have time to think about other jobs," said Tran, who has several family members working at Automata. "That's no problem with us -- in my country we worked six days a week."
With an ever shrinking labor pool available to local high-technology companies, Asian refugees like Tran have become sought-after workers. Some of the area firms say Asians make up half of their work force.
It's not a case of cheap help, local high-tech executives say -- the immigrants are paid the same as American counterparts. The companies say the Asian workers are quick learners on technical concepts and are dedicated workers.
"They have more mental discipline than the average American," said Ronald Seguin, coordinator for the English as a second language program at Washington's Indochinese Community Center. "They are exceptional as opposed to the American, who is is very impatient ... wants answers to everything and doesn't use his brain as he should."
Although immigrants from Southeast Asia -- predominantly Vietnamese, but also Cambodians and Laotians -- make up the majority of the foreign-born work force at many local high-tech companies, Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Afghans and workers of many other nationalities are finding jobs in the high-tech manufacturing companies around the Beltway. The trend here echoes what has happened in California's Silicon Valley, where many assembly-line workers are Asian.
To meet the increasing demand for such workers, training programs are springing up in the area to train the newcomers -- who held a variety of jobs in their homelands -- in basic technology skills and English. "The only stumbling block is the language," Seguin said.
For this reason, many of the immigrants work on assembly lines that require little knowledge of English. "There is more dignity to a factory kind of job and the language is no big deal. ... I think it is a job that people like," said Jocelyn Barbour, an employment specialist for the Fairfax County Department of Manpower Services, which administers a refugee placement program and provides employment services for county residents.
Some, like Tran, 41, view their jobs as a way to save money to educate their children. "All we want is the opportunity for young people to get a higher positions and more knowledge," he said. "Education is the American way and Asian people want a job with a future."
Other workers use jobs in the electronics sector to help put themselves through school at night, and still others use the jobs as a training ground for better technical jobs in the companies where they work.
Local companies report that many of the immigrants are working their way up and becoming assistant supervisors, testers and repairers of computer equipment and design engineers. The companies say they provide equal employment opportunities and pay the same benefits and salaries to foreigners as they do to Americans. "Our salary scale has no eyes," said Virginia Evensen, manager of human resources at Scope Inc., a Reston electronics company that makes a variety of industrial and defense products.
According to the Baltimore-Washington Regional Association, 47,900 people have jobs in the area making electronic equipment -- from transformers to household appliances. Although there is no official count of how many Asians fill those jobs, some local high-tech companies report that as much as half of their work forces are composed of Asians.
David L. Johnson, president of Penril DataComm, a Gaithersburg maker of computer equipment for the communications industry, said that 26 percent of his work force of 205 people is Asian. Nearly half of these 53 workers come from Vietnam, about 16 come from India, and the rest are from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Korea and the Philippines.
"They are hard workers, ... " Johnson said. "They are willing to work overtime as required, which around here is frequently." Many of these workers share housing and split living expenses to save money and to help family members come to the United States, he said.
"They seem to be very nonpretentious about whatever position they have," Johnson said. "They don't say, 'Gee I was a doctor, and you have me putting little things into circuit boards.' "
At EG&G Pressure Science Inc., a Beltsville maker of aircraft components, about half of the 375 employees are Asian, according to personnel representative Sally Connolly. "They are dispersed through the company in various positions, from assembly-line workers to one of our top manufacturing managers, who is an Indian," Connolly said.
In the early 1980s, it wasn't always easy for foreigners to find jobs at area companies, but that picture has changed, said Elaine Squeri, who provides employment services for refugees through the Arlington Refugee Program, a county agency. Companies "got to know what refugees will work like given what they have been through," she said. "They are more willing to start at the lowest kinds of jobs, not take breaks, work extra overtime, work overtime rather than vacation."
Most companies in the area pay at least $5 an hour or more for entry-level assembly jobs. "Some companies pay better than others and the word gets out," Barbour said. Some low-paying companies play an important role in providing entry-level training, she said, "and then people move on and go to better companies."
Companies like Automata and Scope vie for workers. "There is definite competition," said Patricia Bates, personnel director at Automata. "We have a path between a couple of the companies."
Ronald Moyer, vice president of operations at the company, said Automata employs 330 workers, at least 50 percent of whom are from 18 countries, including Egypt, China and Bangladesh -- but mostly from Vietnam. "They are not here just to collect a paycheck, they are here to establish a new life for themselves and a new lifestyle," Moyer said.
"A lot of them are sending money home," Bates said. "Some of them had to start all over again and they want to bring themselves up to where they were before. Some were in the military, health professions ... and teaching. Some have science degrees."
Van Trinh, 29, a Vietnamese jailed three times for trying to escape his country, came to the United States 11 months ago. An acupuncturist by training, he now works at Automata checking patterns used to photographically imprint the surface patterns on circuit boards.
Trinh plans to work his way back to the same profession he had at home. "I want to save money. I want to work full time and study part time," he said. "I want a new life, but same profession."
His sister, Thuy, 24, repairs broken circuit boards at Automata, but goes to school at night at Northern Virginia Community College. She said she values her job because it provides her the stepping stone to a better education. "I work for money," she said. "I want to study computer science."
Officials at C3 Inc., a computer systems integrator based in Herndon, say roughly 10 percent of the company's 521-member work force is made up of Southeast Asians and workers of other nationalities.
Tempest Technologies Inc., an affiliated company that specializes in building electronic circuit boards designed to suppress the escape of electronic signals, employs about a dozen Vietnamese, plus workers of other nationalities on a full-time assembly line of 40 workers, according to Delaney Blaine, Tempest's president.
Tempest also has an additional 45 people, half of them Vietnamese, on a contract basis to meet occasional government contract demands, Blaine said.
"The Vietnamese have set up what we call a cottage industry," said Blaine. "The people will ... do this type of work in their homes," he said. "We do farm some out and it's very much word of mouth."
Mary Frost, a technical recruiter at Butler Service Group, a Virginia temporary job placement agency, said that about 20 percent of the assembly workers she places end up with full-time, permanent work.
She also is working on placing engineers from Southeast Asia with local firms, but "there are thousands of engineers" looking for work at area high-tech companies, she said.
Hung Nguyen, 32, is one of the lucky ones. Nguyen left Laos in 1974 and went to school in France, earning a degree in electrical engineering. He came to this country in 1978 and three years later landed a job at C3 fixing equipment.
"Now I am doing a little bit of design and engineering work," he said. "I support other engineers to develop and debug a design" for computer systems.
"He came here and didn't stop; he continued to grow," said Larry Alford, director of personnel at C3. "We noticed that."
C3 is helping Nguyen go to George Mason University for a degree in computer electronics engineering by paying 75 percent of his tuition. C3 and many other area companies say they will pay for classes if they are related to the work the employees do.
"I would like to get an engineering position and work from there if the company has a space for me," Nguyen said.
Entry-level jobs in electronics are a valuable stepping stone, he said. "Assembly lines are rather more technical than a restaurant, and you can develop your skills," he said.
A strong community ethic of helping each other to gain education and experience has made a big difference for some immigrant workers. Hung Tran, 21, a Vietnamese who escaped Vietnam by boat at the age of 14, worked at a variety of odd jobs while he went to high school in Northern Virginia.
Last year, he got his first technology job, mounting hard computer disks into computer cabinets at C3. He has just been promoted to junior technician, testing computers for a big Marine Corps computer contract.
Tran attributes his success partly to a basic electronics class he took for free at Amtek Systems Inc., an Asian-owned Arlington computer maintenance and engineering company.
"I studied at Amtek for three months," he said. That, coupled with help from a friend who works at C3, got him his first job.
Amtek Systems is an unusual training program, said Diana Ridgway, manager of program planning and contracts at the Fairfax County Department of Manpower Services.
While many private training schools in the area are "very expensive and refugees don't have money," she said, Amtek's president, Long Van Dinh -- himself a Vietnamese refugee -- applied for county funds to train area refugees and place them in high-tech jobs.
The six-person company hasn't turned a profit yet. Providing computer and electronics training for free is part of the company's strategy of creating a cadre of people willing to come and work full time at Amtek once the company starts winning major contracts, Dinh said.
Trainees who have landed jobs at area companies make themselves available to help on current Amtek contracts.
"They hold other jobs during the day," said Peter Long Ly, Amtek's director of operations. "We ask them to work at night and on weekends. ... We hope once we get a large contract we can support them and pay them like a large company."
In the meantime, Amtek provides part-time temporary workers for area companies like Scope. The companies pay Amtek $6 an hour for each worker, and Amtek keeps $1 an hour as profit for itself, Dinh said. Otherwise, he said, "Scope gets them full time and we never get them back."
Last year, Amtek trained 28 students in basic electronics and cable and installation repair work, resume writing and English. Another three-month course, with 30 students, recently ended.
The county pays Amtek $1,700 per student. Forty percent of the money is provided when the student enrolls, another 30 percent when the student graduates, and the rest after Amtek finds the student a job. Virtually all are placed, according to Dinh.
"We make a small profit and we're glad," Dinh said. "They need some help. ... They cannot survive without help from others."
Amtek's courses are taught by a group of technical specialists and engineers who work at area companies.
Sam Dang, 40, a former Vietnamese navy officer who holds a computer science degree and works at Comsite, a Beltsville high-tech company, said he is glad to give up some of his time.
Dang said he worked his way into a high-tech job the hard way, putting himself through school by working service jobs and long hours.
"The best idea for me to contribute to my community is to help them with a shortcut from my experience," he said.
"My first job was to work on a chicken farm, and every day to go at 5:30 a.m. and pick up eggs," he told a group of students from Laos, Iran, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Vietnam, who were sitting in a lounge at Amtek after taking their final exam the other day.
"This is a good opportunity Manpower Services provided," said Ahmad Zohair, a 27-year-old Afghan who spent a week walking from Kabul to Pakistan and arrived in the United States eight months ago.
"They respect us as refugees and as humans."