Semiconductor Sector Needs Probed by Science Committee

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The House Science Committee has held two hearings thus far examining semiconductor industry needs as Congress considers pumping billions of dollars into domestic semiconductor R&D and manufacturing.

Engineer inspecting circuitry

An engineer inspects a circuitry printing template, called a mask, at the Intel Mask Operation in Santa Clara, California.

(Image credit – Tim Herman / Intel Corporation)

As Congress weighs proposals to jumpstart the domestic semiconductor industry by providing billions of dollars for R&D and manufacturing incentives, the House Science Committee is taking a long view of the industry’s needs. Last week, the committee heard testimony on ways to expand the semiconductor workforce, building on a hearing in December that likewise underscored a need to train engineers and technicians in highly specialized skills if the U.S. is to successfully reverse the offshoring of chip fabrication.

Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) remarked at the December hearing that a “one-time infusion of funding will not be enough to maintain U.S. leadership in microelectronics innovation,” and said the subject will become the focus of a “long-term effort by our committee.” Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) similarly said he expects semiconductors to be a continuing oversight priority, and highlighted the Semiconductor Industry Association’s estimate that implementing new initiatives on the currently envisioned scale would require filling around 40,000 jobs in the sector within five years.

Committee examines workforce development strategies

The House and Senate are expected to convene a conference committee soon to negotiate a compromise between their respective innovation policy bills, the America COMPETES Act of 2022 and the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. Both bills would appropriate $52 billion to fund initiatives authorized a year ago in the CHIPS for America Act. Of the total, $39 billion is for manufacturing incentives and the remainder is for a suite of R&D initiatives.

Most of the money would be administered by the Commerce Department, which has pressed Congress to pass the CHIPS Act funding quickly, citing in part “alarming” shortages of chips that continue to hamper the production of cars and consumer electronics, among other goods. The department has already begun preparing to spend the funds by issuing a request for information last month on how best to structure the programs the CHIPS Act created, and it is holding stakeholder workshops in April.

At last week’s Science Committee hearing, Research and Technology Subcommittee Chair Haley Stevens (D-MI) remarked that the panel is “taking a higher-level look at challenges and opportunities to build and expand the semiconductor workforce,” saying the discussion at the hearing should go beyond the CHIPS Act. She expressed particular interest in ways Congress could support efforts to expand education and training and to raise awareness of semiconductor industry jobs among students and veterans.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Randy Feenstra (R-IA) began his remarks by lamenting the long-term erosion of the U.S. semiconductor manufacturing base, citing statistics showing the country’s share of global manufacturing output “decreased from 37% in 1990 to just 12% today.” He said that while the CHIPS Act is a great “first step” with the potential to create tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs across skill levels, the changes come at a time when the industry is already struggling to meet its workforce needs.

The witnesses at the hearing attested to the severity of workforce shortages. Tsu-Jae King Liu, dean of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, highlighted a 2017 survey that found 82% of semiconductor industry executives reported difficulty filling jobs. “The challenge of finding qualified workers has increased since then, and it is now acute at all skill and education levels, from technicians to doctoral-level engineers,” she said, suggesting that the need would more than double within the next few years if the CHIPS Act funding is approved.

Outlining ways to help meet demand, Liu recommended that existing research spaces and equipment be upgraded to better support hands-on training opportunities for students. She highlighted the American Semiconductor Academy (ASA) Initiative, which coordinates training experiences for students at community colleges and universities, national labs, and industry R&D centers. She also pointed to an existing partnership between ASA and the SEMI Foundation, a microelectronics industry association, as a model that Congress could scale up. Among its goals, the partnership aims to increase awareness of career opportunities in microelectronics, from the technician to doctoral level, and to engage faculty in improving microelectronics education, including by aligning courses with industry needs.

SEMI Foundation Executive Director Shari Liss outlined eight actions Congress could take to address workforce gaps. These include increasing investments in K–12 programs and promoting efforts to attract and retain students from Minority Serving Institutions and veterans.

Asked by Feenstra how the ASA-SEMI partnership leverages federal support, Liu pointed to its work to increase access to federally supported manufacturing facilities at universities, such as through the Center for Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge (NACK) at Penn State University, which is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education Program. NACK Director Osama Awadelkarim was the hearing’s third witness, and he highlighted how the center is working to scale up its training model in partnership with NSF’s new Micro Nano Technology Education Center at Pasadena City College.

Recalling his experience designing integrated circuits as a researcher at Fermilab, Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) stressed experiential learning as a way to drive student interest in a career in microelectronics. He suggested regional centers could help students “get [their] hands on that sort of equipment,” as it would not be possible for every educational institution to have such a facility.

Replying to Foster, Liu noted ASA is working to open up access to between 25 and 30 cleanroom facilities for students. She said the effort could be supported through a grant focused on “digital twins” that would give students virtual experience with devices before they have a chance to use them in person.

Committee seeks greater DOE role in CHIPS push

In another move beyond the CHIPS Act, the Science Committee is working to expand the Department of Energy’s role in the push on semiconductors, attaching provisions to the COMPETES Act that would direct DOE to establish up to four Microelectronics Science Research Centers, each with a recommended annual budget of up to $25 million.

The provisions’ lead sponsor, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), said at the December hearing the centers would be akin to those DOE created in response to the National Quantum Initiative Act and would complement the National Semiconductor Technology Center (NSTC) authorized in the CHIPS Act. The NSTC is envisioned as a public-private consortium with participation from several agencies supporting R&D on semiconductor testing and assembly, materials characterization for next-generation microelectronics, automation of manufacturing processes, and supply-chain security.

Berkeley Lab Director Michael Witherell testified at that hearing that the DOE national lab system is a leader in many of the scientific fields that underpin microelectronics and that it has unique research facilities to contribute. He noted the labs have a long history of supporting microelectronics R&D through their Nanoscale Science Research Centers, x-ray and neutron light source user facilities, and electron microscopes, which are used to characterize semiconductor materials and devices.

Witherell also detailed DOE’s experience partnering with the semiconductor industry, such as through Sandia National Lab’s MESA Facility, which develops chips for military applications, and Princeton Plasma Physics Lab’s support for efforts to use low-temperature plasmas in semiconductor chip manufacturing. He further noted aspects of microelectronics R&D are squarely aligned with DOE’s energy mission, such as research to improve the energy efficiency of computer chips. “Although microelectronics make up around 5% of the world’s energy consumption today, the current trajectory would put it at around 25% by 2030,” he observed in his written statement.

Other witnesses called for more federal support for workforce development programs and foundational R&D on “leading-edge” technologies. For instance, semiconductor industry executive Manish Bhatia argued that a decentralized network of DOE-supported centers could “help with bridging the gap from those university and national laboratory environments to mass production by allowing industry consortia to leverage existing resources in the ecosystem to accelerate that time to market.”

In the last two years, major semiconductor firms have announced they are building several new multi-billion-dollar fabrication facilities in the U.S., primarily near existing chip-manufacturing clusters in Arizona and Texas. However, in January Intel announced it is establishing a new complex near Columbus, Ohio, citing in part opportunities to work with regional educational institutions on workforce-development initiatives. Proximity to the proposed National Semiconductor Technology Center or other research hubs could play a role in future facility-siting decisions.

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