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University-Industry Partnerships Key to CHIPS Act Goals

Increased federal investments in domestic production of semiconductors is challenging universities to train a new workforce, which they aim to do with new facilities, state initiatives and industry partnerships.

A worker holding a semiconductor in a sterile environment.
According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, the U.S. produces about 12 percent of the world’s supply of semiconductors, and virtually none of the most advanced microchips likely needed for the development of emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles. Noting an over-reliance on overseas manufacturers, President Joe Biden signed the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act in August to invest over $52 billion into domestic semiconductor production, leading tech companies like Intel, TSMC and Micron Technology to build several new domestic manufacturing plants — and tasking universities with training the talent needed to make them operational.

Among several universities that are helping lead the way in education and training efforts to staff new plants is Arizona State University, which has a semiconductor program focusing on industry collaboration in microelectronics research and workforce development. According to a report from the Arizona State Press, ASU also invested about $250,000 in lobbying for federal provisions like the CHIPS Act in an effort to attract more industry partners to the state.

Kyle Squires, dean of ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering, said universities like ASU now have a key role to play in making the CHIPS Act’s goals a reality, as well as bolstering research needed to advance the field of microelectronics and semiconductor technologies. He said the university has been working to connect students with companies such as TSMC, which plans to build a $12 billion semiconductor manufacturing plant in North Phoenix set to open in 2023. Intel is also investing about $20 billion into two new plants in the state, according to ASU’s website.

“We’ve been growing and expanding. We’ve been positioning through that growth and expansion to meet workforce needs as companies grow their footprint. That includes Intel expanding and TSMC building a fab in North Phoenix,” he said. “And [we’ve been] advancing not just the workforce training that we provide to new graduates, but also connection to supporting industry through faculty engagement, through research and also working together with the state to position the state for CHIPS Act opportunities.”

Squires noted the passage of the CHIPS Act came after last year’s passage of the New Economy Initiative in Arizona, which increased investments for more faculty to teach related courses, as well as the establishment of science and technology centers focusing on emerging fields like advanced microelectronics. In terms of industry partnerships, Squires said, the university has worked with Intel for several years to provide the talent needed to fill a plethora of tech job vacancies where specialized skills are a must, like microelectronics.

“We’re [Intel’s] largest supplier globally of engineering talent, so that’s a pretty significant measurement of the degree to which we’re connected,” he said. “In our research park, at what we call our MacroTechnology Works building, a former Motorola fab, there are a host of companies in there — Applied Materials as one example — where they’re utilizing space and equipment within that facility and connecting with our researchers around projects.”

Sally Morton, executive vice president of Arizona State University’s Knowledge Enterprise, said university-industry partnerships will prove vital to making domestic plants operational and decreasing the country’s reliance on overseas manufacturers. She added that students have been showing an increased interest in fields relating to microelectronics amid investments from the CHIPS Act.

“When we think about the workforce, we’re thinking about the regular college student, everywhere from a bachelor’s to master’s to a PhD, but we’re also doing a lot of work in the pieces around that, like certificates, short courses and upskilling so that people who want to change careers can do so and do so easily. … This will take a skilled workforce and a large one, so we very much want to be part of meeting that demand,” she said, noting that the nearly $53 billion investment from the CHIPS Act surpasses that of the Manhattan Project, in inflation-adjusted terms.

“We push students to the companies, but we’re very much involved in ongoing dialogue with companies,” she said. “For example, ‘What do students need to know? What’s the latest? How can we adapt our curriculum almost in real time to meet industry needs? What are the problems that you are facing right now that we could work on with you together with our students involved?’”

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) classifies degree programs into hundreds of categories, with some of those categories explicitly mentioning that the degree is useful in semiconductor research and development. Government Technology identified 392 degree programs around the country that relate to semiconductor development using NCES’ system.
Students at Purdue University are also showing growing interest in the field amid CHIPS Act investments, according to Peter Bermel, director of Scalable Asymmetric Lifecycle Engagement (SCALE), a 17-university consortium that partners with government and industry for workforce development in the U.S. microchip/semiconductor industry.

In addition to recently launching a comprehensive Semiconductor Degrees Program, which university officials say is the first of its kind in the nation, Bermel said that over 600 students recently showed up for an information session on semiconductor-related career paths.

The university also recently devoted $735,000, awarded from the Semiconductor Research Corporation, to its Center for Heterogeneous Integration Research in Packaging (CHIRP) to connect researchers with tech industry partners to develop next-generation microchips and promote workforce development in advanced microelectronics, among other initiatives.

“The field of next-gen semiconductor chip technology research and education is poised to expand significantly, as it aligns with increasing needs in the public and private sectors. The exact rate of growth will be determined by the universities’ collective interest in this area, and to a certain extent, the support from these stakeholders. Purdue and its partners in SCALE will be moving full speed ahead,” he said, adding that “the landscape is becoming more favorable” for students interested in the field as companies scramble to find the talent needed for new plants.

Squires advised that generating domestic talent for tech companies working on domestic chip development and production should be viewed as a national security concern. He added that the pandemic underscored tech supply chain issues resulting from an over-reliance on overseas manufacturers.

“Where we are lagging is the ability of individuals, university faculty, small companies, medium-size companies, to prototype their inventions to scale those. That is a gap that limits the ability of the large, established companies to adopt innovations coming through that ecosystem quickly … They need a larger workforce than what’s currently coming out of university systems,” he said. “One thing that COVID taught everybody is that supply chains are very fragile or can become very fragile, so if you’re not either on-shoring or near-shoring a lot of your manufacturing capability, you are vulnerable ... That’s heightening the need for greater numbers of domestic engineers within the U.S. working in these industries.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.