The CHIPS Act, as well as the ongoing need for talent, is causing both industry and academia in America to rethink engineering education, resulting in new approaches and stronger partnerships.
As an example, Arizona State University (ASU) now has a Secure, Trusted, and Assured Microelectronics Center (STAM). The center offers an interdisciplinary approach to learning secure and trusted semiconductor/microelectronics technologies, with guest lecturers who are industry professionals.
Its origins underscore the current challenges. “Our effort started with discussions with the Department of Defense, MIT Lincoln Lab, Draper, and so forth,” said Michel Kinsey, head of STAM and associate professor at ASU. “They were truly running out of domestic students who have a deep understanding of secure national systems.”
Similar gaps exist across the globe. And while the current layoffs are making big software companies nervous, far too many undergraduates still dream of being the next Mark Zuckerberg, rather than the next Gordon Moore.
“It’s common to find places that have both electrical engineering and computer science in one department. In many of those, 90% of the students are actually in the computer science part,” said Mark Lundstrom, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University. “There are announcements that 80-some factories are to be constructed, but our colleagues in the industry tell us that one of their biggest concerns is where the engineers and technicians are going to come from to staff them.”
Purdue offers an advanced packaging curriculum through its Center for Heterogenous Integration Research in Packaging (CHIRP), a program offered in conjunction with Georgia Tech, UCLA, and upstate New York’s Binghamton University. Many of the faculty involved are former IBM employees.
Where are the young engineers?
Throughout America, there’s a desperate need to get students into the pipeline from an early age, and much speculation about why they’re disinterested. The leading assumptions are that hardware was hot in the 1950s and 1960s, when everyone dreamed of working for NASA. Hardware was also hot in the 1970s and 1980s, when any curious kid could build a home computer. But with the Challenger disaster tainting NASA ambitions, and consumer-level computers becoming black boxes, interest in hardware engineering careers waned.
“Kids get handed cell phones when they’re three years old. They see everything from software levels of abstraction, all the way up until they’re in college,” said Matt Morrison, associate teaching professor, computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame. “When they get their first introduction to hardware, often in a logic design course, we are trying to overcome 14 or 15 years of disadvantage.”
There’s even the uncomfortable question many veteran engineers ask themselves. Was an entire generation of potential EEs lost when they saw their parents suffer numerous rounds of layoffs once federal space and defense money dried up?
“We have to remake a decade of workforce development in two or three years,” said Duncan Brown, vice president for research at Syracuse University, in a recent report. “It wasn’t just the manufacturing that went offshore, but it was also the talent pipeline that went offshore.”
How to entice the next generation
Lundstrom’s insight into the depth of the challenge should hang over every industry executive’s desk. “The pipeline of potential engineers in this field is more or less fixed for the next decade, because if you don’t have the algebra by the time you’re in seventh grade, it’s unlikely you’re going to get into an engineering program.”
One sign of hope is that both the CHIPS Act and the headlines about chips shortages have raised the awareness of semiconductor engineering as a field among undergraduates. “In the recent years, after the pandemic and with all the supply chain issues, people realized that the world runs on hardware, on physical stuff. You cannot write a software program to emulate toilet paper,” said H.-S. Philip Wong, professor of engineering at Stanford University. “So we’ve recognized there is tremendous value in being able to produce physical hardware.”
“Physical stuff” is what led Stanford and many other schools to emphasize what Wong calls “experiential learning,” with labs that allow students to go beyond taking notes into building devices. He teaches a first-year class on device fabrication, which is deliberately kept small so students can get hands-on experience. The program has five times as many students wanting to enroll as there are spaces. It also helps that he once took leave from Stanford to be vice president of corporate research at TSMC, which maintains an alliance with the university.
The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) takes a similar approach with its “collaboratories,” well-equipped labs that draw from a wide variety of disciplines. “They’re pulling together things like chemistry and physics to make wearable sensors, so you can see that there is this intense mixing of the disciplines, which is one part of this new innovation sphere. We’re seeing a huge surge in growth in electrical engineering specifically because of that,” said Albert Pisano, dean of USCD’s Jacobs School of Engineering. “What is also needed is the mixing of the research needs at a larger number of places. In essence, taking the interdisciplinary one step up.”
Pisano believes in both taking advantage of regional strengths (the engineering school is named for the co-founder of nearby Qualcomm, former UCSD engineering professor Irwin Jacobs), as well as the potential benefits of nationwide collaborations. “The best way to achieve innovation is to provide an ecosystem, an educational, intellectual, and hardware ecosystem so that it is not just academics and students, but industry and government working together,” said Pisano. “Imagine a future where a school could practice on a much larger scale than their own confines and what that will do for the quality of the graduates we deliver to industry.”
Many in the industry agree that universities should work in partnership with both local strengths and national resources to get students into practical work before they have a chance to lose interest. Stanford just received a grant from the National Science Foundation through its future of semiconductors program to plan for the future of semiconductor education. The school is partnering with ASU, Purdue, and Ohio State University. “We picked those universities because they’re local to places to where companies are building the semiconductor manufacturing fabs. Stanford will be investing in the infrastructure to allow students to do more experiential learning,” said Wong.
The industry wholeheartedly agrees. “One of the biggest asks we get from educators is to provide real-world use cases,” said Dora Smith, senior director of the global academic program at Siemens Digital Industries Software. She pointed out that through the use of digital twins, some of that real-world experience is actually in virtual settings.
Most major companies offer a combination of online courses and current employees as visiting professors as their contributions. Additionally, like many universities, they are reaching into high schools.
“Our traditional focus had been just in the higher ed space because that’s where our technology plays quite well,” said Smith. “But in recent years, we’ve gone younger, looking at K-12. We’re trying to help students on the pathway into STEM careers, through efforts we call Siemens Empowers Education and Startups.”
Cadence also aids educational institutions along the educational spectrum, including creating modules that can be used in college courses as well as helping professors develop full courses. “We’ve developed courses in collaboration, and we’ve then made sure that we can share them with others,” said David Junkin, program management director in charge of the Cadence Academic Network in North America. “Professors are very open to that idea.”
Junkin is confident the next generation will be just fine. After all, one of Cadence’s collaborators is barely twelve. “His name is Zeke Wheeler. He’s used our tool and has developed an antenna so that he can communicate with the International Space Station.”
Beyond traditional candidates and positions
Another way to find qualified engineers to to look beyond the traditional applicant pool. In the case of Synopsys, one strategy is to identify women whose engineering careers have been interrupted by caregiving, according to Alessandra Costa, senior vice president of the customer success group at Synopsys. “When they come back after a few years of taking care of children or elderly parents, they’re left in the dust because they have to compete with people who are just fresh out of college with the latest knowledge.”
Synopsys has responded by creating a “returnship,” which is a period of time when promising female engineers are retrained and their skills refreshed. After several months, if all goes well, they’re fully hired.
Notre Dame’s Morrison started his career in the Navy and spent time as a student and assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. While there, he also worked with high schools in the rural Mississippi Delta. While prodigy Zeke Wheeler may be something to celebrate, Morrison’s Navy and Mississippi Delta experiences led him to focus on those whose socio-economic backgrounds make engineering seem an impossible, even incomprehensible, goal.
“The overwhelming majority of employees that we’re going to be putting into these foundries are technicians. They’re the ones who are going to be needing to up-skill and to be able to transfer from other industries or two-year institutions,” said Morrison. “Access is huge, especially when you think about where we’re going to get a lot of our technicians. People from rural areas have limited access to ways in which they can demonstrate proficiency. We have to figure out ways to get to the talent and put the tools in their hands.”
Junkin agreed, and recalled the story of a company that got tired of the constant stealing of employees between themselves and their competitor. “They decided to work together to develop a workforce and asked themselves, ‘What does it need to look like?’ The answer was technicians,” Junkin said. “It’s people who are passionate about doing design, but don’t really want to go through four years of school, and don’t necessarily need that.”
Morrison engages students by what he calls the “chips-plus” approach. He starts with a student’s interest in another field, and shows how it fits in with semiconducting engineer. For example, “chips-plus automotive” starts with kids who love cars. “Let them know there’s an average of 3,000 semiconductors in any given automobile and more to come with electric vehicles,” said Morrison. “When they can see themselves in it, it’s no longer, ‘I have to learn this layout but it’s boring.’ It becomes, ‘I want to learn this layout because that gives me an added asset when I go into this field.’”
Siemens’s version of a “chips-plus” approach is through sustainability, an overwhelming interest for Gen Z and their teachers. “Obviously, it’s important to our planet,” said Smith, “It’s a key topic that educators are asking for more content and support around. They don’t feel like they’re properly prepared, and they need more professional development. There’s certainly a view of that sustainability that we have as Siemens and how our tools might help address that, but we do take a broader view, so we launched a Skills for Sustainability network where we brought in some of our customers, educators and students, and looked at what are the skills specifically that need to be developed.”
The military, as Morrison said, is another source of overlooked talent, often filled with people like himself who never considered engineering until the military placed them in responsible, technical positions.
Pisano also emphasized the value of the veteran talent pool. “San Diego is the U.S.’s largest Pacific naval port. 40,000 veterans are generated in San Diego every year,” said Pisano. “Industry and the military need us to serve them with the talent going in and with the talent going out.”
Additionally, SEMI is collaborating with Vet S.T.E.P. (Semiconductor Training and Experience Program), a DoD-approved Skillbridge program that helps to prepare technicians for the microelectronics industry via a 2-week training and an 8-week internship experience with SEMI member companies. The military itself has created the Scalable Asymmetric Lifecycle Engagement (SCALE) for semiconductor workforce development in the defense sector. Led by Purdue, funded by the Department of Defense and managed by NSWC Crane, SCALE helps train microelectronics engineers, hardware designers, and manufacturing experts.
The biggest enticement for engineers and computer scientists to join the semiconductor industry may be the turn to bespoke silicon. As GUI pioneer Alan Kay said, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” It’s advice his former employer Apple has famously followed.
What may make engineering attractive in the 21st century is a variation on what made it attractive in the 20th century. At Stanford, Wong said of his experiential class, “We have the equivalent of the soldering iron these days, except the tools are different. Being able to show students that there is something that you can do with the hands, and you can see with the eyes, and you can touch, is very exciting.”
The chip industry is paying attention—and sometimes changing their tactics. Instead of targeting first-year students, Lundstrom said, “Companies are telling us that they’re having some success in going into computer science departments at the junior year or so, when students may be getting their fill of writing code.”
“All those people that got hooked on computer science, let’s show them how to put all those smart things that they’ve developed — like this amazing sorting algorithm or whatever — into hardware,” said Cadence’s Junkin. “How to compile C into RTL, etc. Show them that now their app runs not just 10 times faster, but a million times faster, and uses 100th of the power.”
Siemens also is encouraging its interns to think in more interdisciplinary terms and appreciate the hardware side. “We need them to develop software that’s also going to address the other side of our business,” says Siemens’s Smith. “We need them to work at the intersection of those two. We try to find opportunities where they could collaborate so they’re seeing both sides of the house before they determine the one path they’re going to take, because increasingly it’s going to be interdisciplinary when they graduate.”
In the ultimate encouragement, Lundstrom tells his students, “If you want to be doing ambitious things in computing, you’ve got to be building your own hardware. This is my 49th year of working in the semiconductor field. By now, you’d think it would be stale and mature, but I can’t remember a time that’s been as exciting or as important for the nation as right now.”
Courses from Cadence:
Courses from Siemens:
Courses from Synopsys:
Scalable Asymmetric Lifecycle Engagement (SCALE)
The Chip Makers, University of Notre Dame
Pisano, Albert P. “A More Effective Innovation Practice.” Issues in Science and Technology (March 9, 2022).