Technical Workforce Concerns

There is an indication of the need for additional workers in the technical Workforce.  SEMI [Ref. 1] has indicated there is a shortage of 80,000 to 100,000 semiconductor workers.  With the surge in creating additional semiconductor fabs that number is sure to grow.  The growing Space industry is also in need of trained workers.  The same can be said of the med-bio industry.    We don’t have the quantity of skilled workers, so where do we get them.  Part of the solution is to recognize that we, ourselves, have created the problem. 

 In the early days of the semiconductor industry, almost all the positions within the actual manufacturing facility or called the fabrication (fab) facility had challenging procedures with exotic equipment.  A mistake or an unexpected variance at any one of hundreds of steps could result in unusable devices.  The solution was to use highly skilled personnel, usually people with PhDs is very specialized areas.  As the functions increased on the devices, more steps were introduced, which could provide for more failure points.  The solution was to employ more highly skilled people.  With a typical education cycle for a technical PhD of 5 or more years, the supply of the needed personnel was not sufficient.  So, the solution was to consider a way of finding “less trained” personnel, who have “only” one or two Master’s degrees. 

There are organizations that are trying to address this shortage, but the solution is not as simple as one would think and is also simpler than one imagines.  The basic question that needs to be addressed is what skills are really needed.  Using an example from more than fifty years ago.  If one needed a mechanic to work on vehicle transmissions, it was necessary to understand want was involved in stick shifts, which were manual transmissions.    The “automatic” transmissions were the exception.  So knowledge of the manual transmissions were a very important part of the job description.  

What has happened in the semiconductor industry?  One could say that the equipment has improved significantly, which is true.  But a key factor is that the recipes for the manufacture of the devices have stabilized and involve less constant tweaking.  As the process stabilizes, the need for the higher levels of education is reduced.  Jobs that could only be performed by PhDs, now can be run by techs with less formal education but a better understanding of the minor changes required to keep the process variable under control.  But, have the educational requirements been modified to reflect the increased sophistication of the equipment and process controls? 

There is another factor in the fact that each company employs different equipment and variations of the recipes.  Consequently, the “learning” in a structured course will most likely need to be implemented with additional courses/training at the specific company. So, what is the best way to obtain the desired workforce.  There are three approaches, which also require an understanding of what level of education and understanding is required.

The first is to create a general program that address the needs across an entire industry wherever the work will be accomplished.  This program provides the basics and is typical of programs like the SEMI Workforce efforts [Ref. 2} or the Texas State University Round Rock Campus program, which covers multiple different fields in the area beyond semiconductors.  The issue is that the individual companies may find a lot of what is covered and not applicable to their specific interests. They will gladly hire the individual and retrain them to meet their internal needs.

The second approach is to bring a training program inside the organization.  This may work for very large companies that can afford either to bring new employees to a central location for training or for the company to have multiple locations that train their new hires.  This requires an internal organization and the hiring of an external organization that specializes in their technology.  The advantage is that the new workers are learning on the exact equipment they will be using in their day-to-day duties.

The third option is best explained by an example that has succeeded in Minnesota.  Employing a concept that has been fully developed by Newberry Technology Associates [Ref. 3], the nanotechnology needs of the local industry were investigated and an educational program developed to train the technical graduates from the Dakota County Technical College to have skill matched to the industry needs.  This 72-credit program [Ref. 4] was a success and has won awards for its accomplishments thanks to Newberry Technology Associates’ development and oversight.

There are choices to address the workforce needs and the effort and direction is dependent on the specific situation.  Each company and local needs to determine the best way forward to satisfy the needs of the specific location.  This applies to any industry whether semiconductors, aerospace, med-bio, or a new developing industry.  Chose wisely for the best path but investigate previous successes for guidance.    


  3. Newberry Technology Associates

About Walt

I have been involved in various aspects of nanotechnology since the late 1970s. My interest in promoting nano-safety began in 2006 and produced a white paper in 2007 explaining the four pillars of nano-safety. I am a technology futurist and is currently focused on nanoelectronics, single digit nanomaterials, and 3D printing at the nanoscale. My experience includes three startups, two of which I founded, 13 years at SEMATECH, where I was a Senior Fellow of the technical staff when I left, and 12 years at General Electric with nine of them on corporate staff. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from James Madison University, and a B.S. in Physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Nanotechnology, Semiconductor Technology, Technology

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