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Business & Economy

A semiconductor workforce shortage is on the horizon. Ohio higher education wants to fix that.

 A person in a coverall cleanroom suit works at a computer in a science lab.
Allie Vugrincic
A staff member at Ohio State University's Nanotech West Labs works in the lithography block of the clean room, which is used for semiconductor research.

Chris Staudt is studying electromechanical engineering technology at Columbus State Community College. He is helping with semiconductor research at Ohio State’s Nanotech West Labs and hopes to have a career in the semiconductor industry.

“So, I like a lot of the, like, flow sciences and a lot of the things that deal with effectively the way logic flows,” Staudt said. He pointed to the way water flows through a stream, or the way electricity flows through a semiconductor.

A semiconductor is exactly what its name suggests – it’s material that is sometimes but not always conductive, and thus able to control the flow of energy. The semiconductors, commonly called chips, that researchers create at Nanotech West are more complex and involve many components and multiple processes to create them, said Dave Hollingshead, manager of research operations.

The ones that tech giant Intel will manufacture at two new fab plants at a mega-site in New Albany will be even more complex, he said.

The chip plants, described by Intel as a $20 billion investment, are under construction and could begin production as soon as 2025. Intel has said they will create 3,000 company tech jobs.

But industry experts have raised the question: will there be enough skilled workers to fill them?

 A man points to a glass case filled with different sizes and shapes of silicon discs and chips.
Allie Vugrincic
Dave Hollingshead, manager of research operations at Ohio State University's Nanotech West Labs, shows a display case at the Kinnear Road research lab that holds wafers used as a base to build semiconductors and finished semiconductor chips.

Workforce shortage

A 2022 report by financial advisor Deloitte estimates the U.S. semiconductor workforce will be short by 70,000 to 90,000 people in the coming years. The Semiconductor Industry Association takes a more conservative approach in saying the expanding supply chain will create upwards of 40,000 new jobs, but that’s still a lot of help wanted signs.

“I think that the concern for the workforce is a very fair commentary,” said Peter Mohler, interim executive vice president at Ohio State’s Enterprise for Research, Innovation and Knowledge, or ERIK. It brings together all of OSU’s colleges to work on complex challenges, which includes bolstering the semiconductor workforce.

Around 70% of semiconductor production jobs are going to be technical and will likely require an education from a technical school or community college, Mohler said. The other 30% will require a bachelor, master, or PhD engineering degree.

So, the effort to raise a workforce, Mohler said, involves a growing number of partnerships between large research universities, community colleges and technical schools.

"The semiconductor fabrication itself requires many different disciplines. It requires chemistry, physics and chemical engineering, mechanical automation and of course, electrical and computer engineering."
Siddharth Rajan, Ohio State professor

Collaborative effort

More than 30 institutions in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Michigan are now a part of the OSU-led Midwest Semiconductor Network, which is focused on collaboration and sharing information.

“It's not just a bunch of academic institutions guessing what is going to be necessary, but having direct lines of communication with the Intel's or other leading manufacturers,” Mohler said.

Intel was not immediately available to comment on whether it's concerned about having a ready workforce. But last year the company committed $100 million over the next decade to “address immediate semiconductor manufacturing technical challenges and workforce shortages.”

Half of the funding is set to go directly to Ohio higher education.

Currently, seven associations of colleges and universities in the state are developing curriculum specifically designed to support the semiconductor industry, Ohio Department of Higher Education Director of Communications Jeff Robinson said.

He said Ohio’s colleges and universities are expanding existing curriculum and creating short-term boot camps for workers interested in a career change, one-year certificates for entry into the industry as a technician, and additional bachelor's and graduate degree programs.

Coverall "bunny suits" hang just inside an open door leading to a clean room. On a wall, a shelf holds protective eye goggles.
Allie Vugrincic
White coverall "bunny suits" hang just inside the clean room entrance at Ohio State's Nanotech West Labs. The research laboratory is used by students from OSU and other institutions, academics, and industry scientists.

Opening doors

Siddharth Rajan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and material science and engineering at Ohio State has been helping revamp OSU's curriculum for semiconductor production.

"We had to sort of increase by almost an order of magnitude the number of students we were putting through these,” Rajan said, acknowledging the talk in the semiconductor industry about worker shortages.

Rajan said the University has upgraded its laboratories and repackaged classes to create a range of programs from undergraduate programs to graduate certificates and specialized master’s degrees. While some new courses will start in the fall and next spring, Rajan said the main goal is to make existing programs accessible to more students, in part by changing requirements for some courses.

"The semiconductor fabrication itself requires many different disciplines. It requires chemistry, physics and chemical engineering, mechanical automation and of course, electrical and computer engineering,” he said. “And so, all of these disciplines are needed in a fab. So, all this expertise is needed."

 Two young men stand in a sun-filled industrial hallway.
Allie Vugrincic
Columbus State Community College students Zachary Reese, left, and Chris Staudt, both from Galloway, help with semiconductor research at Nanotech West Labs, which is run by Ohio State but used by students and academics from many schools. Both Reese and Staudt are considering staying in Ohio to work in the semiconductor industry now that tech giant Intel is building two fab plants in the area.

Fostering interest

Of course, the programs and funding will only work if there’s interest in the industry.

Back at Nanotech West, Hollingshead said that semiconductor research has always been conducted at the roughly 20-year-old nanofabrication facility on Kinnear Road, but it’s grown “quite a bit.”

“The interest has ramped up since the Intel announcement,” Hollingshead said.

In addition to researching new materials for semiconductors – silicon has long been the standard choice – Nanotech West’s cleanroom facilities serve as a safe environment for students like Staudt and fellow Columbus State attendee Zachary Reese to learn.

Both from Galloway, Staudt and Reese said they are likely to stay in Ohio now that Intel is on it’s way in.

Staudt said he knows other people who are interested in semiconductor production.

“A lot of people tend towards the software now, though. But I think interest in hardware is still out there,” Staudt said.

“For me, it feels like I'm really the only one.” Reese said. “I mean, [Staudt] lives like five minutes away, but I know nobody that is into this stuff. So, it's like all my friends think I'm like, so cool with this gown on in the clean room, and I'm like an outsider.”

Business & Economy semiconductorIntelworkforce
Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.