US engineering shortage frustrates chip industry




WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – On a recent afternoon, an unusual group of visitors watched through a window as Purdue University students tinker in a lab: two dozen executives from the world’s largest semiconductor companies.

The tech leaders had traveled to the small-town campus on the Wabash River to address one of the biggest problems facing them — and the U.S. economy —: a critical shortage of engineers.

Leading visitors on a tour of the high-tech lab, engineering professor Zhihong Chen mentioned that Purdue could really use some donated chipmaking equipment as it scrambles to expand semiconductor education.

“Okay, it’s done. We can do it,” Intel’s manufacturing chief Keyvan Esfarjani quickly replied. 3,000 people.

Computer chips are the brains that power all modern electronic devices, from smartphones to fighter jets. The United States used to build many, but now relies heavily on Asian manufacturers, a reliance the Biden administration sees as a major risk to the economy and national security. Major new government subsidies aimed at relocating manufacturing spark a boom in building new chip factories, but a severe shortage of engineers threatens the ambitious project.

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By some estimates, the United States needs at least 50,000 new semiconductor engineers over the next five years to staff all the new factories and research labs that companies have said they want to build with grants. from the Chips and Science Act, a number far exceeding current graduation rates nationwide, according to Purdue. Additionally, legions of engineers in other specialties will be needed to meet other White House priorities, including retooling auto manufacturing for electric vehicles and producing technology to reduce U.S. dependency. to fossil fuels.

“It is consistently one of the main, if not the first, long-term concerns that [chip companies] have,” Mung Chiang, Purdue president-elect and former dean of engineering, said in an interview. As they embark on their expansion, “they care about the economy. They care to build it. They care about customer demand and competition. But recurrently, in the medium to long term, that’s their number one concern… how can we build a much bigger talent pool right now? »

Chip companies aren’t the only ones worried about the problem — or looking to Purdue, one of the nation’s top engineering schools, for answers. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who oversees the chip grant program, visited campus last month to learn about the classes and labs Purdue is adding to rapidly expand semiconductor education . Several Defense Department officials also recently traveled to Purdue, located about halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis, to discuss workforce training.

“We’ve become very popular here,” Chen, the engineering professor, said as she led the executives past a honeycomb sculpture of graphene, a substance Purdue faculty are studying as a material to build buildings. best electronic devices and batteries.

Sanjay Tripathi, a top IBM executive, called Purdue’s plans impressive, but warned the university could not fill the void alone. “The question is, how do you take this model and scale it to other universities?” he told the Washington Post at the end of the tour.

The Chips Act provides $200 million for worker training. Intel and the National Science Foundation also recently announced an effort, as have a number of universities and industry associations.

“Secretary Raimondo recognizes the significant need to expand the training pipeline to meet the administration’s goals for CHIPS, electric vehicle production and other high-tech manufacturing investments,” the department said. of Commerce in a press release. “She is committed to working with the private sector and research institutions to provide training programs – from GEDs to PhDs – that will benefit workers and strengthen our global competitiveness.”

Engineering shortages have long plagued the US tech sector, with Google, Apple and others complaining that immigration restrictions have made it difficult to find employees. They have spent years lobbying for an expansion of the H1B visa program for highly skilled foreign workers, to no avail.

The semiconductor industry now faces additional hurdles resulting from the outsourcing of chip manufacturing over the past decades. As production moved to Asia, fewer American students studied semiconductor engineering. At the same time, the rise of social media and other software-focused businesses moved more students into those industries, where starting salaries were often higher than in the chip industry, engineers said.

Engineers in the United States have long experienced lower unemployment rates than other college graduates — rates that are now hovering near historic lows amid rising demand for their skills.

“The last time I was at a football game there were ads everywhere for Rolls-Royce. They’re looking for engineers,” Purdue’s acting dean of engineering Mark Lundstrom said in an interview. at Neil Armstrong Hall, named after the most famous of Purdue’s 27 graduate astronauts, “Our engineering enrollment and our computer science enrollment has gone up…but there’s such a demand for these students.”

Rapidly expanding chip education, Purdue aims to train 1,000 semiconductor engineers every year as soon as possible — up from perhaps 150 a year today, according to engineering professors Muhammad Hussain and Peter Bermel, who help direct the effort. Purdue is rolling out new courses and labs for undergraduates, a new master’s program, and an effort to place students in chip internships during their early years of college.

The university also invited semiconductor experts to join an advisory board to make recommendations on curriculum and training, which brought chip executives to campus.

During their visit, the companies did their best to lasso students for future jobs, including Bika Carter, director of external research and development at chipmaker GlobalFoundries, who said she ” was aggressively recruiting” a young man who sat next to her at breakfast. .

“I got his resume, put it to the right manager and the manager this morning said he looked like a great candidate and we’re setting up an interview,” she said. “So I already feel successful.”

As company officials toured the chip-making lab, they spotted graduate students Sahana Thota, Manas Pandit and Uidam Jung working in head-to-toe white protective clothing known as bunny suits. – a bulky uniform needed to prevent strands of hair or specks of dust from damaging the delicate silicon wafers.

“You get used to it,” Pandit said, his face obscured by a mask and balaclava.

The students were finishing an afternoon using sophisticated lithography machines to etch transistor patterns onto silicon wafers, a process by which dozens of individual chips are formed. From time to time, instructor Joon Hyeong Park would check their work under a microscope to make sure the drawings were developing properly.

After stripping off multiple layers of balaclavas, goggles, gloves, hairnets, coveralls and booties, the students talked about their future plans. All three are from overseas – India and South Korea – and would like to pursue careers in semiconductors, most likely in the United States, if they can secure work visas.

“I never imagined that I would make a Moscap and a Mosfet in my life,” Thota said, waxing lyrically about the different types of chips. “But this job gives me enough opportunities to fabricate all my thoughts.” Pandit said his older sister, also an engineer, inspired him to join the field.

It may be years before students are ready to enter the workforce, but companies are already knocking on their doors. Thota said she attended a job fair a few weeks ago and was contacted by several companies about internships and full-time employment afterwards.

A worldwide chip shortage in recent years has grabbed headlines and helped raise student awareness of the field, said Lundstrom, the dean of engineering. When Purdue hosted a party last month on careers in semiconductors and its new chip courses, more than 600 students filled the lecture hall and spilled out into an overflowing crowd watching outside on their phones.

After Professor Chen’s lecture on semiconductor devices on a recent afternoon (topic: What is a PN junction?), several undergraduate students said that their interest in green energy attracted to semiconductors.

“I’ve always been interested in renewable energy efficiency,” said Joey Lopez, a junior from Schererville, Ind. “And basically semiconductors have a key role in power conversion for all of this.”

Nate Thompson, a junior from East Grand Forks, Minnesota, said he finds chips vital because they’re essential to improving computers.

“Everyone is like, you know, go work for Google, you know, artificial intelligence. ‘IA needs,’ he said.

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.

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