Supply shortage now, worker shortage next for chip firms, Accenture says

As U.S. semiconductor manufacturers continue to plan for the opening of new fabs, and get excited about the prospects for government funding to spur their efforts, they may not be giving due consideration to something that could prove an immense hurdle for their future success: A shortage of skilled workers.

Amid the broader worker shortage affecting many different industries, the U.S. faces a talent gap specifically when it comes to having enough workers sufficiently educated, trained and skilled enough to lead the domestic rebound that the industry and Congress–in approving the CHIPS Act–are hoping for.  President Biden, expected to sign the CHIPS Act on Tuesday, has described the measure as a means to dramatically boost the skilled worker shortage as well as the numbers of jobs to build new fabs.

For companies betting on U.S. expansion strategies to help deliver them from a historic global supply shortage, the skilled worker shortage poses a major problem, according to the new Accenture study, “The Competitive Etch: Addressing the Talent Gap in the Semiconductor Industry.”

“This idea of a talent shortage is becoming a more serious concern,: said Syed Alam, global lead of Accenture’s semiconductor practice. “This is going to become even more problematic, for [chip manufacturing] requires a very specific skill level. You need the PhDs in material sciences and electrical engineering for some advanced silicon technology work, you need electrical engineers for manufacturing and other things, and then you also need a lot of people who will be working on the software, or as print technicians, factory supervisors or factory machine operators.”

The first and most obvious answer to a shortage of human workers is to increase automation where it makes sense. The semiconductor sector already has done a lot of that, but Alam said it could do more in areas including, but not limited to:

  • Automating SoC assembly solutions to boost design team productivity and lower costs

  • Using automation to validate that design meets requirements of manufacturing process

  • Silicon lifecycle management, such as assessing device performance from post-manufacturing and testing through to deployment

  • Automation of fab layout planning to optimized manufacturing line setups, including  tool layout and process separation)

  • Automated material handling and transport through the manufacturing area

  • Preventive Maintenance

  • Predictive Maintenance, where IoT enable visibility into current state and expected progression of equipment health

Still, automation can’t provide all the answers. The industry needs humans, too, but it will not be easy for the semiconductor industry to satisfy that need. Alam noted that the current trend toward “on-shoring” chip manufacturing comes after decades of off-shoring to international locations where companies realized layers of cost benefits, including cheaper labor. U.S. firms will not just be able to flip a switch to reverse this trend, especially at a time when U.S. immigration policies are not conducive to allow a flood of experience and educated International engineering talent into the country.

“Something we say in our report is that attracting international talent is going to be the key to sustainable growth,” Alam said.

The semiconductor industry also must overcome its own checkered history regarding talent recruitment. “Semiconductor companies have not done a good job of attracting and retaining the talent over the years, and they also have not done a good job of diversifying their talent base,” Alam said. The industry’s failures at recruitment have resulted in a loss of prestige for the sector, as workers have flocked instead to “hot” firms in sectors like aerospace and hyperscale data centers.

“They need to do a better job of explaining the critical role they're playing in the overall tech ecosystem to attract more people and a more diverse array of workers,” Alam said.

Beyond this, the semiconductor industry also needs to further explore “reskilling” and the potential value that retraining workers in new roles, particularly as automation increases, and displaces some workers from their traditional roles, could have. Companies should not let those skilled workers go without a fight, but reskilling also poses a challenge, in that it can take a long time.

Something else that will take a long time but will be very necessary to sustaining a large and successful U.S semiconductor manufacturing sector is investment in youth STEM education and programs.

The industry will need to do all of the above to make sure it can keep up with the pace of growth that it expects new manufacturing sites in the U.S. to deliver. And if it starts making progress, it can’t let up because the next challenge will be doing a better job than it historically has done retaining talent. “There could next be the concern that you do all these things, and you are able to fill the talent gap, and then some new shiny thing will come up five or 10 years from now, and people will want to shift towards that,” Alam said. “So this will be an annoying challenge.”

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