In 2021, at the virtual White House Chip Summit, President Biden held up a SkyWater silicon wafer and said, “This is infrastructure.” He’s right; semiconductor devices are used in everything from electronic control systems in vehicles to warfighters to smart phones. The 2022 Chips and Science Act is enabling investments to expand the nation’s capacity for semiconductor production. But more is needed to ensure healthy growth in this sector.
The U.S. semiconductor industry is poised to surge ahead. The Chips Act is already spurring new projects that will be vital to domestic manufacturing, supply chains, and national security. A thriving industry will make the U.S. the leader in AI and the technologies of tomorrow. To hit our full potential, we need the workforce to match.
For the U.S. semiconductor industry to succeed, we need approximately 250,000 workers in the next five-plus years. We need technicians, engineers, and administrative staff, but also workers in adjacent industries like construction, childcare, and others. There’s much we can do as a nation to address the challenges and create the opportunities associated with developing a skilled semiconductor workforce.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, posits that CHIPS Act investments will build a domestic semiconductor workforce by investing in manufacturing facilities, partnering with industry and education and training providers, supporting semiconductor education and training, and fueling research and development. We will need technicians to operate state-of-the-art equipment in fabs and engineers for R&D in semiconductor design and manufacturing. These workers will come from all levels of education – community colleges to doctorate programs. To develop the skilled and qualified workers needed to support this initiative, we must implement short- and long-term solutions, starting with science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM—education in K-12 through higher education, along with hands-on experience and on the job training. Advancing the workforce will happen through public-private partnerships among government, industry, and academia.
Under the Chips Act, the Department of Defense recently announced $238 million in funding to establish eight “Microelectronics Commons” regional innovation hubs across the country. Many of them are centered on universities like Purdue, which offers a degree program in semiconductors. These innovation hubs will create direct pathways to commercialization for U.S. microelectronics researchers and designers, known as “lab-to-fab.” The “Microelectronics Commons” enables core manufacturing facilities, including SkyWater, to partner with hubs and play a pivotal role in guiding the DOD’s efforts in microelectronics development, ensuring that cutting-edge technologies reach their full potential.
The Biden administration has also set up the Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs program, designating tech hubs in 31 states plus Puerto Rico. It aims to spur U.S. innovation, strengthen manufacturing, and create good-paying jobs in every region of the country. The statute authorizes $10 billion for the program over five years, investing in regions with the assets, resources, capacity, and potential to transform into globally competitive innovation centers in approximately 10 years.
To ensure the success of these investments we need a multifaceted development plan to grow the workforce. Beginning in the early stages of education (K-12) through postgraduate, we in the semiconductor industry can help to build awareness for high-tech jobs by visiting schools, supporting career days, and holding job fairs. We can offer immersive learning programs to provide hands-on training and experience by establishing internships, apprenticeships and rotational programs. The industry should also consider partnering with community colleges, technical schools, and universities to develop specialized programs and curricula tailored to semiconductor manufacturing. We can award scholarships to university and community-college students, which will also raise the chances students will complete their education.
Each year, 200,000 people retire from the military. Working with veterans has the dual benefit of giving us access to a diverse, highly skilled talent pool, and will help us fulfill our duty to assist with veterans’ transition into the civilian workforce. Industry associations can be leveraged to facilitate partnerships between government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector.
Technology is advancing fast. Companies can help the domestic workforce keep up by providing opportunities for continuous learning such as online training, workshops, seminars, and conferences. We can provide mentorship programs and cross-train employees in multiple areas of semiconductor manufacturing. And in all these efforts, we need to foster more opportunities for women and encourage diversity and inclusion in the workforce. We’ll all gain from a broader variety of perspectives and experience.
Semiconductor manufacturing is a dynamic and challenging field, and we must invest in our workforce to remain competitive and innovative. By implementing these short- and long-term strategies, we can build a highly skilled workforce capable of meeting the industry’s critical demands.
The industry needs everyone from engineers to childcare workers, writes SkyWater CEO Tom Sonderman in a guest commentary.