Semiconductor Skills Shortage May Escalate to ‘Crisis’ by 2030
Although the semiconductor industry is historically one of the most lucrative and fast-paced industries in the world, it now faces an unprecedented challenge.
According to recent reports, the U.S. semiconductor industry is facing a significant worker shortage. This shortage is projected to become a tech worker crisis by 2030, with a shortfall of one million workers.
The estimated technical worker supply gap may extend beyond the semiconductor industry to the U.S. economy at large. Image used courtesy of the Semiconductor Industry Association
The shortage spans various professions, including electrical engineers, technicians, and production workers, with a particular scarcity in the area of Very-Large-Scale Integration (VLSI) design. Now, as the growing crisis threatens to sidetrack the industry, many of the field’s leaders are rallying together to educate and train a new wave of professionals.
Demand Outpaces the Long Semiconductor Career Path
Since the 1960s, the semiconductor industry and its workforce have steadily grown with new technology and consumer demand. While the current worker shortage is likely due to many intersecting socioeconomic variables, some factors play a bigger role than others.
The rise of big-data technologies like machine learning has heightened the demand for next-generation computing platforms. According to a McKinsey report, sales in the semiconductor industry grew by 20% in 2021 alone. However, fabrication facilities struggled to scale up the worker supply at the same rate.
Electrical engineering enrollment is trending down, while computer science enrollment is trending up. Image used courtesy of the 2022 IEEE VLSI Symposium on Technology and Circuits/Semi Wiki
The rigor of semiconductor engineering compared to other engineering pipelines has also deterred many prospective talent from pursuing a career in this field. Semiconductor design requires a deep understanding of physics, statistics, and electrical engineering, often necessitating an advanced education and numerous on-site training experiences to gain mastery. In contrast, software engineering, for example, provides a lucrative career with a four-year degree and, in some cases, only a three-month “boot camp”. With less education and training required, one can become a software engineer and likely earn a higher salary—and this is what many people are doing.
As the U.S. workforce has shifted its attention to software-centric fields like artificial intelligence and machine learning, countries like Taiwan have doubled down on semiconductor engineering. The result: the U.S. is a leader in software but has fallen sharply behind in hardware.
TSMC Delays US Chip Fab Opening, Imports Workers
While reports predict the semiconductor labor crisis to occur by 2030, the impact of the worker shortage is already making its mark in the U.S. today.
Recently, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) announced plans to significantly postpone the opening of its Arizona chip factory, pushing the completion date from late 2024 to 2025. The company attributes this delay to a shortage of technical workers who know how to install and operate specialized equipment in a semiconductor-grade facility.
The TSMC plant in Arizona. Image used courtesy of TSMC and CNBC
To meet its new opening deadline, TSMC has imported skilled workers from Taiwan to the U.S. Numbers are unclear, but reports indicate that TSMC may have imported more than 500 workers to the plant—a decision some U.S.-based workers have decried.
Arm Launches Semiconductor Education Alliance
Targeting the shortage from an education standpoint, Arm, along with other industry leaders, has recently launched the Semiconductor Education Alliance.
By bringing together key stakeholders across industry, academia, and government, the alliance seeks to create competency frameworks tailored to specific geographies and develop educational and training pathways. This initiative may give teachers, researchers, and prospective or practicing engineers access to educational resources and semiconductor projects.
Part of the initiative is to create opportunities for hands-on experience through internships, apprenticeships, and co-op placements. Additionally, the group will develop educational opportunities through massive open online course (MOOC) platforms. The alliance wants to help find more talent to bring into the workforce while also upskilling the existing workforce.
Some notable members of the alliance include Arduino, Cadence, Cornell University, the Semiconductor Research Corporation, STMicroelectronics, and Synopsys.
Is a Workforce Crisis Inevitable?
According to a report from Deloitte, the U.S. will need to add one million additional skilled workers to the semiconductor industry by 2030 to avoid a crisis—equating to 100,000 annually. The same report indicates that currently, fewer than 100,000 graduate students are enrolled in electrical engineering and computer science in the U.S. annually.
Based on those numbers, the chances of avoiding a crisis seem slim. However, with new initiatives from the industry leaders like Arm, and the right amount of government incentive, the U.S. may rise to the challenge and meet the demands of new fabs cropping up.