To boost the chip design labor pool: up to $30B in US funds, better marketing

Now that the US CHIPS Act has been approved to pump $52 billion in federal funds into domestic semiconductor manufacturing, the chip trade’s focus is shifting to find better ways to bolster the chip design labor pool.

A new study from the Semiconductor Industry Association and Boston Consulting Group said a federal investment of $20 billion to $30 billion in direct funding and tax incentives would help companies attract 23,000 design engineers needed by 2030.

For years, a big concern for the domestic chip design industry has been to foster a rich talent pool of design engineers and related specialties as chips are used in a greater variety of products and exploding in sheer volume.

Aside from billions in federal assistance, industry officials offered different ideas at a SIA online forum on Thursday. Better marketing and free tuition to college students in the design field were among them.

“Making this [hardware design work] something people want to do is a huge problem,” said Kevin O’Buckley, senior vice president and general manager of the ASIC business unit at Marvell. “We have to do something in the industry to make hardware and software at the hardware level something people want to invest in and spend time in…We’ve got to do something to make it more attractive for people to go into hardware engineering.”

It's fashionable today for many college students to focus on programming skills instead of electrical engineering and hardware skills, he said, repeating a theme commonly voiced by hiring managers at semiconductor companies.

O’Buckley said he personally would favor tuition reimbursement and discounts for hardware coursework. Other ideas mentioned on the SIA panel included opening up immigration policy to attract design engineers and increasing diversity hiring.

“With more diversity, we can bring more people into the field,” said Mark Fuselier, senior vice president of technology and product engineering at AMD.   “A key focus is needed on diversity. Trying to funnel more folks into STEM-based fields is critical.”

The panelists did not specifically address public policies that could increase the labor pool, although the new SIA and Boston Consulting Group study shows the shortage of design engineers will increase to 23,000 designers by 2030, given graduation trends and expected retirements. 

The study calls for a public-private collaboration to encourage more US workers to enter the field of chip design and to encourage experienced designers not to leave the field.  The private sector is likely to invest up to $500 billion over the next decade in design-related initiatives including R&D and workforce development, the study found.

Further, the SIA-BCG study suggests a federal investment of $20 billion to $30 billion in design and R&D (including a design tax incentive) would improve design-related sales and support training and employment for the 23,000 needed design jobs, thereby “fortifying the US leadership position in semiconductor design.”

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