The semiconductor industry could be worth $1 trillion by 2030, growing from $600 billion today – and there will be an acute shortage of talent to fill jobs as the sector grows.
“We need to … move the needle in the next few years. We need to convince more of these students to come, to consider, and prepare for careers in the semiconductor industry,” said Mark Lundstrom, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University, during panel discussions last month to discuss the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act at the university.
Those concerns were also expressed by other members in the panel discussion, which focused on workforce development. The CHIPS Act opens more than $50 billion in government funding to boost the U.S. semiconductor industry, which includes $13.2 billion to fund R&D and workforce development. (More on that here.)
“The numbers you have seen … are about 300,000 people needed [by] 2030. I think that those numbers are understated … we need well more than 500,000 to 600,000 people in the industry to make it a success,” said Ajit Manocha, the CEO of SEMI, a consortium representing semiconductor companies across the globe.
The workforce shortage developed over the last two decades, and it cannot be solved overnight, said Manish Bhatia, Micron’s executive vice president of global operations, during the discussion.
The panelists described semiconductor jobs as engineers applying knowledge and skills to design, fabricate or use chips. Those jobs do not include administrative, construction, human resources, and other adjacent jobs that are aligned with the semiconductor industry.
The U.S. government considers semiconductors as critical to national security, and the CHIPS Act is seen as a launchpad to boost public-private partnerships. NIST and other U.S. agencies are working with chip makers like Intel and IBM to boost domestic research and workforce development.
“We’ve all watched over the last 30 years, literally, as I entered the industry, the migration of semiconductor manufacturing overseas and now we have a big incentive to move it back, but everybody’s going to start moving at the same time,” said Tom Sonderman, CEO at SkyWater, which has chip manufacturing plants in the U.S.
But two points made by the panelists stood out: many students are not attracted to engineering, and education is becoming unaffordable.
“We have to realize that for the next 10 years or so, the pipeline is more or less fixed. If a kid does not have algebra by seventh grade, they are unlikely to be going to an engineering program,” Lundstrom said.
Enrollments in engineering programs at large universities are growing, but are declining at smaller universities and community colleges.
“We need to develop a longer-term strategy for growing the overall STEM workforce. And that is a challenge when enrollments are bursting at the major programs but they are declining at regional programs and at smaller schools. We can address that challenge,” Lundstrom said.
The CHIPS Act focuses on bringing more jobs to U.S. citizens, which could reduce vulnerabilities in the domestic chip supply chain. Lundstrom said half of the engineering graduate students at Purdue are from international. Half of the new hires are graduate students and half are undergraduate engineering students, which are largely domestic, Lundstrom said.
“Why aren’t more U.S. students going on to graduate school? You know, what they tell me is they have accumulated debt. Engineering degrees are difficult. They would think about pursuing a graduate degree down the road at some point,” Lundstrom said.
The U.S. could take lessons from Europe, where kids stay in college much longer, and education is much cheaper, said Max Mirgoli, executive vice president of worldwide strategic partnerships at Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC), which is based in Belgium.
“Getting a PhD is cheap. It costs only a few thousand Euros. That is a different dynamic and you get more PhDs produced in Europe than you get here because it is more expensive,” Mirgoli said.
The panelists proposed some solutions to the problem. One was to encourage students to pursue combined “4+1” degree programs, which could help students get their undergraduate and graduate degrees in five years.
Another interesting proposal was to hire veterans, who can be retrained to operate high-precision equipment. “Those are the best workers to do the most sophisticated technician work that we have in this industry,” SEMI’s Manocha said.
SEMI runs multiple programs to reskill veterans to work in the semiconductor industry. Manocha invited more chip companies to participate in the program.
There are also opportunities to grow the number of women and underserved minorities in the semiconductor workforce, panelists said.
“Students who come from underserved backgrounds, who might be the first in the family to go to college, they need a mentor, to help them even decide what courses to take, to apply for internships, and so on. I think recently retired professionals could serve as mentors to guide and inspire the next generation of students,” said Tsu-Jae King Liu, the Dean and professor of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.