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A Crisis in Engineering Education – Where are the Microelectronics Engineers?

A Crisis in Engineering Education – Where are the Microelectronics Engineers?
by Tom Dillinger on 07-03-2022 at 10:00 am

At the recent VLSI Symposium on Technology and Circuits, a panel discussion presented a jarring forecast.  The theme of the panel was “Building the 2030 Workforce:  How to Attract Great Students and What to Teach Them?”, with participants from academia and industry, as well as a packed (and vocal) audience.

On the one hand, the forecasts for economic growth in the microelectronics industry are uniformly robust – “a $1T industry by 2030” (notwithstanding a short-term more muted outlook).

Yet, the clear message from all the panel participants was “Where will the microelectronics engineers necessary to support this growth come from?” 

The figure below says it all.  The disparity in college enrollment for EE versus CS majors continues to grow.  (from Raja Koduri, Executive Vice President and general manager of the Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics Group at Intel)

Microelectronics Engineers

The goal of the panel session was to solicit ideas to address the issue.  As you might imagine, there were conflicting opinions on the merits of some of the proposals put forth.

The goal of this article is the same, to solicit recommendations from SemiWiki readers on how to get more students interested in microelectronics.

“Show me the money”

One topic of discussion was the salaries offered to graduating software developers versus microelectronics engineers.

    • “Students hear about software grads getting tremendous starting salaries. Why should they choose hardware engineering?”
    • “It is simply not viable for us to pay entry-level engineers on large hardware teams that kind of money.”
    • “When interviewing candidates, I look for a sense of passion about microelectronics. If their sole focus is money, it’s not a fit.” 

Question:  How could industry professionals and academics help generate that passion in students?

Academic + Government + Industry partnerships

“Other countries have recognized this issue, and have established special university programs for microelectronics students – from tuition incentives to assistance finding employment when they finish the program.”

Here’s a site with some examples – link.

“The American Semiconductor Academy Initiative is working on this issue in the U.S., a partnership between universities and SEMI.”link.

Questions:  How can academic/industry collaborations be more effective?  What should be the role of government in addressing the microelectronics engineering shortage – should the U.S. follow the examples of other countries?

The Microelectronics EE Curriculum

The audience did not have clear opinions when posed with the question whether the current undergraduate EE curriculum was appropriate or needed revision to encourage more microelectronics students.

A passionate faculty member said, “I am one of a group of faculty that teach a tapeout course.  It’s demanding, both on the students and the faculty.  The cost per student to the university is high.  Yet, the students say they benefit greatly from the experience.  They learn about engineering projects, schedules, teamwork, and how tradeoffs need to be addressed.”  (link, link, link)

I intend to follow-up further with the faculty, to see how this experience might scale to attract more students.

Questions:  Is the microelectronics curriculum optimum?  How do we educate students about the breadth of skills that are part of the microelectronics industry, to see what might ignite their passion (perhaps like a tapeout course)?  Would high school be appropriate to introduce (STEM) students to a microelectronics curriculum?

Internships

“Offer more internships to EE students early in their studies, to get them industry exposure and excited about microelectronics.”

“Internships are hit-and-miss.  Too often, there is just not a good fit with a student’s early background and our project opportunities.  It’s a mismatch for both the student and the mentor.  Instead of a positive experience, it turns into a negative.”

Questions:  Is early industry internship experience worth the investment, to attract more students?  How can the experience be more beneficial to both the student and the company?

The First Job Experience

“We often direct new hires into verification tasks to start their careers.  And, we have let verification – one of the most exciting and vital roles on the team – come to be regarded as unappealing.  We need to change perceptions about the importance of all the different facets of microelectronics, and make the first job a more valuable experience.”   

Much of the panel discussion centered on providing (circuits and/or system) design coursework to students, and how that often differs from their initial job assignments.  There was not much focus on how to expose students to other aspects that might appeal to them, areas like: product testing and bring-up; product qualification; sustaining product engineering (e.g., cost and performance improvements for product revisions, field support);  and, project management.

Industry on Campus

One anecdote from an academic on the panel received universal acclaim from the audience.

“We had an executive visit campus from a high tech company.  He met with students, and spent considerable time with them describing the kinds of microelectronics opportunities available and the skills the company was seeking.  He talked about potential career paths, and the company’s focus on employee development.  That made a huge impression on the students.” 

Perhaps more industry professionals could reach out to universities.  Contact the IEEE student chapter and offer to meet with students.  Buy pizza.  Share your own passion for microelectronics.  Indicate to them that they would be working on the most complex systems ever conceived – “one trillion transistors” – using the most advanced manufacturing techniques – “atomic layer deposition”.  And, their efforts could help the planet address critical issues we all face, from improving healthcare to enhancing transportation to enabling faster communications technology, all with a focus on power efficiency.

Follow-up

I would welcome your insights into ways to address the engineering shortage issue.

If you are involved in the American Semiconductor Academy initiative, either from SEMI or academia, please reach out with more info – I would like to better understand (and promote) the activities underway.

If you are a microelectronics student, why did you choose to pursue this field of study?

I am intrigued by the “tapeout experience” course offering, and how that could attract more microelectronics students – look for another article in the future.

Thanks in advance for your feedback.

-chipguy

Also read:

TSMC 2022 Technology Symposium Review – Advanced Packaging Development

TSMC 2022 Technology Symposium Review – Process Technology Development

Inverse Lithography Technology – A Status Update from TSMC

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