Economic future of U.S. depends on making engineering cool
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – On a recent afternoon, an unusual group of visitors peered through a window at Purdue University students tinkering in a lab: two dozen executives from the world’s biggest semiconductor companies.
The tech leaders had traveled to the small-town campus on the Wabash River to fix one of the biggest problems that they – and the U.S. economy – face: a desperate shortage of engineers.
Leading the visitors on a tour of the high-tech lab, Engineering Professor Zhihong Chen mentioned that Purdue could really use some donated chipmaking equipment as it scrambles to expand semiconductor education.
“OK, done. We can do that,” Intel manufacturing chief Keyvan Esfarjani quickly replied.
Just weeks before, his company broke ground on two massive chip factories in Ohio that aim 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 a lot of them but now largely depends on Asian manufacturers, a reliance that the Biden administration sees as a major economic and national security risk.
Hefty new government subsidies aimed at reshoring manufacturing are sparking a construction boom of new chip factories, but a dire shortage of engineers threatens the ambitious project.
By some estimates, the United States needs at least 50,000 new semiconductor engineers over the next five years to staff all of the new factories and research labs that companies have said they plan to build with subsidies from the Chips and Science Act, a number far exceeding current graduation rates nationwide, according to Purdue.
Additionally, legions of engineers in other specialties will be needed to deliver on other White House priorities, including the retooling of auto manufacturing for electric vehicles and the production of technology aimed at reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.
“This is recurrently one of the top, if not the number one, long-term concerns that (chip companies) have,” Mung Chiang, Purdue’s president-elect and former engineering dean, said in an interview.
As they embark on their expansion, “they care about the economics. They care about building it. They care about customer demand and competition.
“But recurrently, medium-to-long term, this is their number one concern … how can we build a much bigger pipeline right now of talent?”
Chip companies aren’t alone in worrying about the problem – or in looking to Purdue, one of the country’s biggest engineering schools, for answers.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who is overseeing the chip subsidies program, visited campus last month to hear about the courses and labs Purdue is adding to rapidly expand semiconductor education.
Several Defense Department officials also have traveled lately to Purdue, located halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis, to discuss workforce training.
“We have become really popular here,” said Chen, the engineering professor, as she led the executives past a honeycomb sculpture of graphene, a substance Purdue faculty are studying as a material for building better electronics and batteries.
Sanjay Tripathi, a top IBM executive, called Purdue’s plans impressive but cautioned that the university can’t fill the gap alone.
“The question is, how do you take this model and scale it to other universities?” he said to the Washington Post at the end of the tour.
The Chips Act includes $200 million for worker training. Intel and the National Science Foundation also recently announced an effort, as have a number of universities and industry associations.
“Secretary Raimondo recognizes the significant need to expand the training pipeline to meet the Administration’s goals 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 come up with training programs – from GEDs to (doctorates) – that will benefit workers and strengthen our global competitiveness.”Engineer shortages have long plagued the U.S. tech sector, with Google, Apple and others complaining that immigration restrictions made it difficult to find employees.
They’ve spent years pushing for an expansion of the H1B visa program for highly skilled foreign workers, to little avail.
The semiconductor industry now faces additional obstacles stemming from the offshoring of chip manufacturing in recent decades.
As more production migrated to Asia, fewer U.S. students studied semiconductor engineering.
At the same time, the rise of social media and other software-focused companies shifted more students to those sectors, where starting salaries were often higher than in the chip business, engineers say.
Engineers in the United States have long enjoyed unemployment rates below those of other college grads – rates that are now hovering near all-time lows amid soaring demand for their skills.
“Last time I was at a football game there were ads all over the place for Rolls-Royce. They are looking for engineers,” Mark Lundstrom, Purdue’s interim engineering dean, said in an interview at Neil Armstrong Hall, named for the most famous of Purdue’s 27 astronaut graduates.
“Our engineering enrollments and our computer science enrollments have grown … but there is such a demand for these students.”
By rapidly expanding 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 helping lead the effort.
Purdue is rolling out new courses and labs for undergraduates, a new masters program and a push to place students in chip internships during their first few years of college.
The university also invited semiconductor experts to join an advisory board to make recommendations on curriculum and training, which is what brought the chip executives to campus.
During their visit, the companies did their best to lasso 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, got him to the right manager and the manager this morning said he looks like a great candidate and we’re setting up an interview,” she said. “So I already feel successful.”
As company officials toured the chip-fabrication lab, they caught a glimpse of graduate students Sahana Thota, Manas Pandit and Uidam Jung working in white head-to-toe protective garb known as bunny suits – a cumbersome uniform needed to prevent strands of hair or specks of dust from damaging the delicate silicon wafers.
“You get used to it,” Pandit said, his face obscured by a mask and hood.
The students were wrapping up an afternoon of using sophisticated lithography machines to etch transistor patterns onto silicon wafers, a process through which dozens of individual chips are formed.
From time to time, instructor Joon Hyeong Park checked their work under a microscope to be sure the designs were developing correctly.
After peeling off layers of hoods, goggles, gloves, hairnets, jumpsuits and booties, the students talked about their future plans.
All three are from overseas – India and South Korea – and would like to pursue careers in semiconductors, most likely in the United States, if they can get work visas.
“I never imagined I would fabricate a Moscap and Mosfet in my life,” said Thota, waxing lyrical about different types of chips. “But this work is giving me enough opportunities to fabricate all my thoughts.”
Pandit said his older sister, also an engineer, inspired him to join the field.
It could be years before the students are ready to enter the workforce, but companies are already knocking on their doors.
Thota said she attended a career fair a few weeks ago and had several companies contact her about internships and a full-time job afterward.
A global shortage of chips in recent years has grabbed headlines and helped raise student awareness about the field, said Lundstrom, the engineering dean.
When Purdue held an evening session last month about semiconductor careers and its new chip courses, more than 600 students filled the lecture hall and spilled into an overflow crowd watching outside on their phones.
Hanging around after Professor Chen’s course on semiconductor devices on a recent afternoon (topic: what is a PN junction?), several undergrads said their interest in green energy drew them to semiconductors.
“I’ve always been interested in renewable energy efficiency,” said Joey Lopez, a junior from Schererville, Ind. “And basically, semiconductors have a key role in the power conversion for all of that.”
Nate Thompson, a junior from East Grand Forks, Minn., said he finds chips vital because they are key to improving computers.
“Everyone’s like, you know, go work for Google, you know, artificial intelligence. But … the level of computing power that we have right now, it’s not up to par with what the next step in AI needs,” he said.