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Report outlines what to do about semiconductor industry labor shortage

November 16, 2023
By: Michele Hujber

The semiconductor industry's workforce is expected to grow from approximately 345,000 jobs today to about 460,000 by the decade's end, and of these new jobs, roughly 67,000 are at risk of being unfilled, according to a report from the Semiconductor Industry Association and Oxford Economics (SIA-OE report).

The SIA-OE report makes three recommendations for addressing this shortage:

  1. Strengthen support for regional partnerships and programs to grow the pipeline for skilled technicians.
  2. Grow the domestic STEM pipeline for engineers and computer scientists.
  3. Retain and attract more international advanced degree students.

Regional partnerships and programs

Thirty-nine percent of the anticipated unfilled jobs will be at the technician level. These workers are people who have obtained certificates or two-year degrees, which are offered at regional institutions. The report notes that “expanding certification boot camps, apprenticeships, and other training programs at community and technical colleges located near new and expanding semiconductor fabs (manufacturing plants) would be an effective means to help close the workforce gap for technicians.”

The SIA-OE Report summarizes a few programs that successfully use partnerships in their region. One example is Maricopa County Community College District, located in Phoenix, AZ, one of America's major semiconductor hubs. The district introduced a Semiconductor Technician Quick Start 10-day program that awards NIMS Technician Certification to successful students upon graduation. The program is taught by workers from a nearby microchip fab. The report notes, "This direct engagement between current employees gives students a better understanding of their future work, and direct connections to potential future colleagues; and also gives industry a window into potential future workers before they enter the production fab.”

The domestic pipeline

It takes four to ten years of post-secondary education for an engineer or computer scientist to earn a degree, making growing the domestic STEM pipeline a long-term endeavor. But, the number of students who complete a STEM degree is greater than those who pursue STEM careers. And only a tiny fraction of those who pursue a STEM career enter the semiconductor field. "At each of these intervention points, even marginal growth in talent supply could have meaningful, long-term impacts on meeting the necessary demand,” the SIA-OE report said.

The report lists a variety of actions that could help increase the number of engineers and computer scientists entering the field, including:

  • targeted recruitment and education campaigns,
  • scholarships,
  • research fellowships,
  • hands-on experiences,
  • support for university engineering programs, and
  • new facilities and opportunities.

The SIA-OE report also notes that the support from the National Semiconductor Technology Center, the semiconductor-focused Manufacturing USA Institutes, the National Advanced Packaging Manufacturing Program, expanded NIST metrology research, the Department of Defense Microelectronics Commons, and the National Science Foundation CHIPS Workforce and Education Fund, all supported through the CHIPS and Science Act, could help build the domestic pipeline.

The report describes another trend that could help fill the engineer and computer scientist pipeline: the creation of semiconductor-specific degree programs and higher education networks. Purdue University, for example, offers a Semiconductor Degree Program, which offers a Master of Science degree, stackable certificates at the post-graduate level, a Bachelor of Science minor, and associate degrees through a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana.

Also potentially helping to increase the number of graduates entering the semiconductor field are more than 65 higher education institutions that are members of semiconductor regional networks. These networks encourage collaboration between institutions on semiconductor research, curriculum, opportunities and assets, and other solutions and efforts.

International students

While the U.S. semiconductor industry faces a critical shortage of master’s and PhD students to fill its talent pipeline, international engineers are leaving the U.S. each year. The SIA-OE Report says this number amounts to approximately 17,000 master’s and PhD engineers who would have potentially worked in the semiconductor industry lost by the decade's end.

International master’s and PhD students comprise a significant number in the U.S. each year: over 50% of master's engineering graduates and over 60% of PhD engineering graduates are foreign citizens, according to the SIA-OE Report. The researchers found that approximately 80% of master’s and 25% of foreign PhD STEM graduates leave the U.S. after graduating, either by choice or because of U.S. immigration policy.

As reported by SSTI, the recent Executive Order regarding the future of AI in the U.S. contains directives for easing visa policies. These policy changes will benefit AI and many other technology fields, including the semiconductor industry. As outlined in a paper written by Divyansh Kaushik, associate director for emerging technologies and national security at the Federation of American Scientists, these visa policies include:

  • Schedule A Update. Schedule A is a list of occupations for which the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has determined insufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available. Foreign workers in these occupations can skip the PERM (Program Electronic Review Management) labor certification process, which takes an average of 300 days to complete. Kaushik noted that "(w)hile the EO only calls for an RFI seeking information on the Schedule A List, this is a critical first step to an eventual update that is badly needed."
  • Policy Manual Updates For O-1A, EB-1, EB-2, And International Entrepreneur Rule. Kaushik noted, "The modernization would likely include clarification and updates to the criteria defining 'extraordinary ability' and 'exceptional ability' under O-1A, EB-1, and EB-2 visas, becoming more inclusive towards talents in emerging tech fields."
semiconductors, workforce