Engineering shortage in US frustrates chip industry

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — On a recent afternoon, an unusual group of visitors peered through a window at Purdue University students tinkering in a lab. The audience included two dozen executives from the world’s largest semiconductor companies.

The tech leaders had traveled to the small town’s campus on the Wabash River to solve one of the biggest problems facing them – and the US economy: a desperate shortage of engineers.

Engineering professor Zhihong Chen showed visitors around the high-tech lab and mentioned that Purdue could really use some donated chip-making equipment as it strives to expand semiconductor education.

“Okay, done. We can do that,” Intel manufacturing chief Keyvan Esfarjani quickly replied. Just a few weeks earlier, his company had broken ground on two massive chip factories in Ohio that are expected to employ 3,000 people.

Computer chips are the brains that power all modern electronics, from smartphones to fighter jets. The United States used to build many of them but is now largely dependent on Asian manufacturers, a dependency the Biden administration sees as a major economic and national security risk. Heavy new government subsidies aimed at relocating production are sparking a boom in building new chip factories, but a glaring shortage of engineers threatens the ambitious project.

Chipmaker Micron is building a $20 billion factory in New York amid the semiconductor boom

By some estimates, the United States will need at least 50,000 new semiconductor engineers over the next five years to fill all the new factories and research labs that companies say they plan to build with Chips and Science Act subsidies, a number well in excess current graduation rates across the country, according to Purdue. In addition, legions of engineers in other specialties are needed to fulfill other White House priorities, including converting car manufacturing to electric vehicles and producing technology aimed at reducing the US’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“This is consistently one of the best, if not number one, when it comes to long-term concerns [chip companies] have,” said Mung Chiang, President-elect of Purdue and former Dean of Engineering, in an interview. When they start their expansion, “she takes care of the economics. You take care of the construction. They care about customer demand and competition. But in the medium to long term, this continues to be their biggest concern… how can we build a much bigger pipeline of talent now?”

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

“We’ve become really popular here,” said Chen, the engineering professor, as she led executives past a honeycomb sculpture made of graphene, a substance that Purdue faculty is studying as a material for building better electronics and batteries.

Sanjay Tripathi, a top IBM executive, called Purdue’s plans impressive but warned that the university cannot fill the gap on its own. “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 earmarks $200 million for workers’ training. Intel and the National Science Foundation also recently announced efforts, as did a number of universities and industry associations.

“Secretary Raimondo recognizes the significant need to expand the training pipeline to meet government targets for CHIPS, EV production and other high-tech manufacturing investments,” the Commerce Department said in a statement. “She is committed to working with the private sector and research institutions to develop training programs – from GEDs to PhDs – that benefit workers and strengthen our global competitiveness.”

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

The semiconductor industry now faces additional obstacles resulting from the shift in chip manufacturing over the past few decades. As more manufacturing moved to Asia, fewer US students studied semiconductor engineering. At the same time, the rise of social media and other software-focused companies shifted more students into sectors where starting salaries were often higher than in the chip business, engineers say.

Engineers in the United States have long enjoyed an unemployment rate below that of other college graduates – rates now hovering near all-time lows as demand for their skills increases.

“The last time I was at a football game, there were Rolls-Royce adverts everywhere. They’re looking for engineers,” said Mark Lundstrom, Purdue’s interim dean of engineering, in an interview at Neil Armstrong Hall, named after the most famous of Purdue’s 27 astronaut graduates. “Our engineering and computer science enrollments have increased … but there is a lot of demand for these students.”

With the rapid expansion of chip education, Purdue is aiming to graduate 1,000 semiconductor engineers annually as soon as possible — up from perhaps 150 a year today, according to engineering professors Muhammad Hussain and Peter Bermel, who are leading the effort. Purdue introduces new courses and labs for undergraduates, a new master’s program and a push to place students in chip internships in 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 her visit, companies did their best to recruit 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 a breakfast event .

“I got his resume, took him to the right manager and the manager said this morning he looks like a great candidate and we’ll set up an interview,” she said. “So I already feel successful.”

As company employees toured the chip-making lab, they caught a glimpse of graduate students Sahana Thota, Manas Pandit, and Uidam Jung working in head-to-toe white protective clothing known as bunny suits — a cumbersome uniform required to hold strands of hair or strands of hair Dust particles prevent the sensitive silicon wafers from being damaged.

“One gets used to it,” said Pandit, his face covered by a mask and hood.

Students completed an afternoon using sophisticated lithography machines to etch transistor patterns onto silicon wafers, a process that forms dozens of individual chips. From time to time, instructor Joon Hyeong Park would check their work under a microscope to ensure the designs were developing properly.

After stripping off layers of hoods, goggles, gloves, hair nets, overalls and booties, the students talked about their plans. All three are from overseas – India and South Korea – and would like to pursue careers in the semiconductor industry, most likely in the United States if they can get a work visa.

“I never thought I would make a moscap and mosfet in my life,” Thota said, raving about different types of chips. “But this work gives me enough opportunity to fabricate all my thoughts.” Pandit said his older sister, also an engineer, inspired him to join the field.

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

A global shortage of chips in recent years has grabbed headlines and helped raise student awareness of the field, said Lundstrom, the dean of engineering. When Purdue held an evening session on semiconductor careers and its new chip courses last month, more than 600 students filled the classroom and spilled into a crowded crowd watching on their phones outside.

Hanging out one afternoon after Professor Chen’s class on semiconductor devices (topic: What is a PN junction?), several students said their interest in green energy led them to semiconductors.

“I’ve always been interested in the efficiency of renewable energy,” said Joey Lopez, a junior from Schererville, Indiana. “And fundamentally, semiconductors play a key role in power conversion in all of this.”

Nate Thompson, a junior from East Grand Forks, Minnesota, said he thinks chips are vital because they are the key to improving computers.

“Everybody says, you know, go work for Google, you know, artificial intelligence. But… the computing power we have right now isn’t what the next step in AI needs,” he said.

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.

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