Chip Ecosystem Apprenticeships Help Close The Talent Gap

Registered apprenticeships, community colleges, and in-house training can help build a broad workforce pipeline for technician roles and more advanced positions.

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Competency-based apprenticeship programs are gaining wider acceptance across the chip industry as companies and governments look for new ways to address talent shortages, and as workers look for new skills that can span multiple industry sectors and industries.

Funded in part by the CHIPS Act in the U.S. the European Chips Act, and various other nation-specific and regional programs, apprenticeships rely on a combination of on-the-job training and classroom instruction. These skills are essential to ensure sufficient manufacturing capacity, fueled by the need for semiconductors in new and existing markets, the growth of heterogeneous integration and advanced packaging, and national and regional efforts to on-shore and re-shore advanced packaging for economic and security reasons.

With apprenticeships tailored to companies’ needs, and delivered through local community colleges, apprentices earn a federally-recognized credential with skills that are transferable between companies and industries in case of job loss. Companies gain essential, skilled talent, and apprentices earn money while learning skills in a real-world setting.

“If we look at the number of fabs coming in globally, we’re going to have a shortage of probably 250,000 to 500,000-plus people by 2030, depending on how well we address it,” said Ajit Manocha, president and CEO of SEMI. “Two-thirds of the jobs will be filled at the technician level, which requires associate degrees from community colleges. Apprenticeships are also a great tool for the technicians. The remaining one-third is mostly masters degrees and PhDs in material science, chemical engineering, and STEM education fields.”

In the U.S., SEMI is expecting 18 new fabs to open by 2026, with a need for about 70,000 new employees. “In terms of the timeline and actual numbers, it’s going to depend on when the CHIPS Act investments get made and exactly how much infrastructure and ecosystem are needed,” said Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation and workforce development programs.

The SEMI Foundation is tackling the talent issue from every angle, including apprenticeships, connecting veterans to the industry, diversifying talent, STEM education in K-12 schools, and image and awareness work. “Apprenticeships are just one potential alternative pathway to hire, but by sheer need, member companies are starting to recognize that we can’t only go to the universities to fill all of these roles,” said Liss. Semiconductor apprenticeships are successful in other parts of the globe, such as Europe, but launching a program in the U.S. was particularly challenging. “It wasn’t an accepted path when we first started discussing it within SEMI, so it did take some convincing to get companies to come on board. But now there are successes and engagement.”

Competencies-based semiconductor apprenticeship programs
Many of the semiconductor apprenticeship programs springing up across the U.S. are backed by the National Institute for Innovation and Technology (NIIT), the U.S. Department of Labor’s national intermediary responsible for establishing and expanding registered apprenticeships (RAs) throughout semiconductor and nanotechnology-related industry supply chains, and which recently launched the national Semiconductor and Advanced Manufacturing Technician Apprenticeship Program (SAM-TAP).

“To date, we have 79 programs in 17 states with about 4,500 apprentices committed to the program,” said Mike Russo, president and CEO of NIIT. “If we’re not leading, we’re behind the scenes across the country.”

The first step when establishing an RA is to meet with employers and determine how many people they need, whether they are growing, and what their target positions are. Next, the employer fills out a job profile through NIIT’s National Talent Hub, a database used to build curricula and courses to meet employers’ needs, developed with the National Science Foundation (NSF). “The profile is not a job description,” said Russo. “This is a detailed compilation of the required competencies to be proficient in the job. It includes personal, technical, and business attributes, and whether you need these skills on day one or day 50.”

SEMI’s Liss agrees that collaboration is key. “Companies are starting to be more comfortable sharing competencies––based on what they need––to training providers, even when IP is such a big part of the challenge across our industry,” said Liss. “With the program we helped to build in California, we had four significant companies come together to map competencies, which is unusual. It led to a really successful launch of a technician pathway. When you look at the skill sets needed to fill fab roles, there’s often an 80% overlap from company to company. Then the on-the-job training part of an apprenticeship becomes critical.”

Gone are the days when hours-based apprenticeships qualified a young adult to do one job for life. Today’s programs cater to people at every stage of their career, and offer ongoing growth, as seen in the National Apprenticeship Week’s 2023 theme, “Superhighway to Good Jobs.”

“Apprentices are able to ladder up inside their employer, or to the left or to the right, which enables the employer to hire in at the base technician level and move them up from within,” said NIIT’s Russo. “That enables us to broaden the pipeline. We can pull people right out of high school or pull adults from other careers and determine what they already know and build upon that. We’re also able to take returning service members and their families through the U.S. Department of Labor.”

All RAs run on the “Earn and Learn” model, where an apprentice earns a portion of what their salary would be even during classroom learning. In addition, organizations like SEMI can provide critical wrap-around services, including help with transportation, books, and school costs. “Funding that comes to us to implement the programs will also go to the apprentices so that we can bring in diverse workers that need financial support,” said Liss.

NIIT’s Russo agrees that payment helps bring in more people. “Apprentices get hired to fill full-time positions, which is very important for first-generation folks especially,” said Russo. “Many people don’t have the luxury of being able to write the check for the degree, but if it’s going to be learn and earn, they can participate.”

Because NIIT is focused on workforce development for all advanced manufacturing, the organization also works to ensure job security for its apprentices. “A sector-specific strategy for the semiconductor industry will not work,” said Russo. “First, there’s not that many jobs, relatively speaking, in semiconductors specifically. Number two, it is a highly cyclical business. If you look at 2023 and all the promises for groundbreaking and jobs, there was almost no hiring. Then, all of a sudden, companies can’t get people quickly enough. So when we pull people in, we work hard at establishing a strong foundational skill set that’s transferable and can be used in multiple strategic industry sectors, not just semiconductors. Once an individual has that foundation, they can move to another sector. It could be bio manufacturing or chemical materials production, if they’re furloughed or there’s no work.”

NIIT also partnered with temp agency Manpower to plug candidates into its Growing Apprenticeship in Nanotechnology and Semiconductors (GAINS) program via the Talent Hub. “That way, when the employer decides to hire, the candidate has a leg up, and when they start their in-company training, they have several boxes already checked,” said Russo. “Or when they’re let go, they’re valuable to another employer who we can match them to in the system.”

Another tool is NIIT’s Career Opportunity Hubs aimed at schools. “We’re in seven states now,” said Russo. “We’re ensuring the entire K-12 public education system is providing foundational skills, so when kids come out of high school they can get into the pipeline. Our strategy is to go to the public school system and scale it, because all kids go to school, and diversity is already there.”

Likewise, companies can use apprenticeships as a tool to recruit from a broader populace than those seeking chip jobs. “Initially, when we were trying to get employers in the semiconductor industry to look at RAs, they were not interested because they were looking at it as the building trades model,” said Russo. Some companies have changed their minds after seeing a program in action. For example, in Texas, Applied Materials would get 25 or 30 applicants when they posted technician positions with a two-year degree requirement, and they weren’t filling the openings. NIIT suggested posting the job as an RA without referencing semiconductors. “They shut off the applications at 300 instead of 25 or 30, and the caliber of the candidates went up, which led them to be all-in with our programs.”

Is an apprentice guaranteed to keep their job at the end of a program? “The idea is that the apprentice gets trained and then hired,” said SEMI’s Liss. “But they have to meet certain benchmarks along the way to get the commitment from the company.” Meanwhile, SEMI recently received an HRTP grant to explore shorter earn-and-learn programs in California because member companies said the typical 18-month RA model is too long.

State governments also are getting involved. For example, Arizona recently launched a semiconductor RA program with NXP, which includes $4 million in funding to support its apprentices, and it created a Future48 semiconductor workforce accelerator with Maricopa Community College.

However, NIIT’s Russo noted that with the CHIPS funding coming, “All these entities are saying, ‘Give us money, we can do X, Y, and Z.’ So we’re fighting a fragmentation of efforts.”

Electronics manufacturing apprenticeship programs
If job seekers are put off by images of workers in white fab suits, they may choose a broader program such as IPC’s National Program Standards of Apprenticeships in the electronics manufacturing industry, which recently gained approval from the Department of Labor and partnered with the Institute for American Apprenticeship (IAA) to offer grants to reimburse companies that participate in IPC’s RA program.

Like NIIT’s RAs, IPC’s apprenticeships are not a one-stop shop. “Depending on the occupation that a person starts at, you can stack an apprenticeship,” said Cory Blaylock, director of workforce partnerships at IPC. “If an employee came in as an electronics assembler apprentice, they may end up stacking a technician or inspector apprenticeship and could potentially become a program manager, or even develop into an engineering support role like a PCB designer.”

IPC’s members represent all facets of the electronics industry, and its apprenticeship standards cover the manufacturing supply chain. “We’re willing to look at any occupation that would support the industry,” said Blaylock. “Our apprenticeship is designed to be plug-and-play so employers can utilize the program standards that we’ve already developed and vetted with the related technical instruction. Companies can then design a workforce ecosystem by reaching out to their local workforce boards, who are the experts in their region and can help pull in education and employer partners to make a cohesive pipeline of talent.”

In Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) supports the Industrial Training and Education Consortium of the Lehigh Valley (iTEC), which offers state RA programs in mechatronics and industrial manufacturing technicians. “These are entry-level positions but you still need to have technical aptitude, know basic math such as how to measure, how to work machines, how to problem solve,” said Karianne Gelinas, LVEDC’s vice president of regional partnerships and talent strategies. iTEC also is planning programs for more advanced roles such as chemical technicians. Like most RAs, its apprentices fall into a broad age range.

“They tend to be folks in their mid-20s to 35 or 40,” said Gelinas “They’ve been in the workforce for a bit and now they’re making strategic decisions about where they’d like to see their future go.”

Growing role for community colleges
The first step in choosing an RA partner is to assess the region and its educational resources. The leads may be in state government, economic development agencies, a university or college, but sometimes there’s no central entity, said NIIT’s Russo. “Once we do a deep dive, we can organize a comprehensive strategy and provide infrastructure.”

When an RA partners with a community college, it varies as to whether an apprentice needs to be enrolled in the college to participate or if they can join the RA only. In most cases, apprentices need just a high school diploma or equivalency to enroll, though apprenticeships targeting more senior semiconductor roles will have stricter requirements.

SEMI worked with Foothill College to launch its first program in California. “In the Bay Area where we started, the apprentices do a number of courses on community college grounds, then they do on-the-job training at the member company sites,” said Liss. “Companies are nervous because we’re putting these new folks on the floor with this multi-million-dollar equipment, so we’re trying to mitigate that by doing some of the training in the classroom as best we can. It’s tricky because we don’t have training facilities everywhere in the country to do that kind of work.”

To meet this need, NIIT established a national network of community colleges to be the required technical instruction providers around the country, with courses loaded in its National Talent Hub. “As apprentices move through the program, there are various modules that have introductory coursework that’s not on the fab floor. It varies based on shared training assets, employers’ job requirements, and the individuals. For example, if I came out of the military and I am advanced when it comes to a specific type of tech, then I don’t have to go deep into that theory.”

Industry support means that community colleges look set to play an increasing role in the evolving job landscape, with or without RAs. For example, Intel supports a stackable, transferable one-year technician certificate program in Ohio.

“While there are clear tier-one universities that dominate in the industry, they’re not the only ones,” said Jennifer Dickens, manager of business technology and communicated insight at Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC). “By obtaining a very targeted training certificate, a community college student can demonstrate a level of aptitude and be brought into the workforce much sooner than through a four-year undergraduate degree followed by a masters.”

SRC historically has nurtured PhD candidates, but Dickens said the organization is mobilizing to broaden the mix and bring undergrads and community college students into the industry. For example, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) holds an annual Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Conference sponsored by NSF. “SRC uses that as a cooperative, collaborative platform to reach the technicians,” said Dickens.

The four-year degree vs. apprenticeships and other training tools
With so much change in the air, each company will need to determine the education requirements for its specific roles. “In many cases, you can only go so far without a degree,” said NIIT’s Russo. “But the more that employers accept they’re able to pull in people at the technician level and see them succeeding within their walls, the more they will be inclined to provide pathways for those individuals to climb the ladder within. Plus, most of these employers have tuition reimbursement programs so employees can pursue degrees, and we can help to ensure that prior learning experience can be accredited to them. That is not in any way, shape, or form going to deter people coming in right from engineering degrees. It’s not this or that. It’s both.”

In addition to tuition reimbursement, companies can help bring a student over the finish line. For example, Teradyne offers a $5,000 scholarship in partnership with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to assist STEM students at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU).

Apprenticeships can be used to provide practical training to fresh engineering graduates who have the education but lack the skillsets necessary to succeed right away. Likewise, companies that see NIIT RAs succeed at entry level can request programs to fit higher positions. For example, Applied Materials is in the NIIT program in Texas, California, and soon New York, and NIIT recently filed the standards to meet the company’s occupation requirements for more advanced roles.

Both NIIT and SEMI are looking at building an RA to serve engineering roles and, while uncommon, there are already stories about people succeeding without a degree. “We have great stories all over the country,” said NIIT’s Russo. “There’s one individual who’s done an apprenticeship program at GlobalFoundries, and within four or five years’ time, he’s now an engineer.”

NIIT offers mentor training to the company staff responsible for the apprentices, building on the foundation that’s already in place for in-house training. Because RAs may not work for all companies, in-house training will always be valuable.

“We have developed a number of programs where we identify talented individuals who may be less specialized, and provide them the tools and training,” said Jerome Goyhenetche, group director of culture and talent at Cadence. “This includes university hiring programs for early career professionals, and a Returnship program where we help individuals re-enter the workforce, which largely benefits working mothers. We also have a rotational program with our U.S. application engineers which provides students the opportunity to experience different roles over the course of a year and decide what team they want to work with.”

In addition, Cadence joined Arm, Synopsys, and partners in a Semiconductor Education Alliance to address the challenges of finding talent and upskilling the existing workforce. “It’s about bringing the semiconductor industry, academia, and government together to build industry competency frameworks,” said Khaled Benkrid, senior director of education and research at Arm. “If we don’t understand the job roles in the market, it’s very difficult for us to address it in educational and training standards. By the end of the four- or five-year degree, the skills will probably change, so we match it with accelerated learning pathways. People may be technicians for only about a year or less before they get training for new roles.”

Internships still have a role to play, too, as they are an effective way to draw students into the chip sector. “We see a lot of competition with computer science degrees, so we need to find ways to help these undergrads understand why the semiconductor industry is attractive and why it’s lucrative,” said SRC’s Dickens.

To this point, Keysight has increased its engagement with undergrads through programs and internships that connect chips to their end product and utilization. “We focused on high schools and junior colleges to look at technology skilled learners, not just engineers, because there is going to be a need around the manufacturing side,” said Michele Robinson, director of corporate social responsibility at Keysight. “If you’re just looking at the engineering schools, you’re missing a whole group.”

Information sessions about internships are another way to build awareness. “You can go to a campus, spend an hour talking about the company and the opportunities that align to the programs the school has, so students can quickly get a flavor of the industry and your company,” said Kyle Klatka, director of marketing operations at Teradyne. “Many of them have only heard of Intel or Qualcomm.”

Compared to an RA, an internship may or not be paid. It could be full- or part-time, and there are no instruction or training requirements. Interns typically are enrolled or just graduated from college, and they don’t receive a federal or industry recognized credential upon completion. “For example, many employers have ‘summer internships’ that are made available to students during school break just to provide some industry experience,” NIIT’s Russo said.

At Teradyne, internships are usually six months and are always paid. “We have them across all major job functions, from engineering to operations to marketing,” said Klatka. “The requirements on whether we need an undergrad versus grad student will vary. They’re going to apply some skills from their degree, engage with people, and ask questions. Our intent is to actively figure out if they could be a full-time employee at Teradyne.”

Conclusion
Solving the chip industry worker shortage is going to take a concerted effort up and down the education system, from sparking an interest in STEM at a young age so more university students choose hardware engineering degrees, to offering apprenticeships and training opportunities to people who don’t go to college. And it will need to happen on a global basis as the chip industry approaches $1 trillion in annual revenue.

“There’s going to be a million different paths to working in the industry,” said SEMI’s Liss. “It’s not a simple answer. There are going to be apprenticeship programs where we pull kids directly from high school, and we also pull veterans directly out of the military as they’re transitioning to civilian careers. We provide training upfront that gets folks on the fab floors, without any needed degrees. That’s one pathway. Other pathways may include students getting an AA degree first and then exploring apprenticeship opportunities. Then, of course, are the four-year engineering degrees.”

Since each apprenticeship program is specific to its region and the companies involved, there may be varying degrees of success as RAs gain footing. However, results so far are positive.
“We had between 20 and 25 apprentices in our first California class, with almost 1,000 people that wanted in,” said Liss. It was a case of piloting, learning, and working with many partners to launch the first program. “Now we’re lifting in Michigan and hopefully, soon, other states are investing in us to do this work. We just need to figure out how to scale it. Part of that is restricted by the hands-on training component, and also by who’s hiring and when. The fabs are going to be built. Until we have the fabs, we can’t place the workforce. It’s a timeline challenge.”

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