Early STEM Education Key To Growing Future Chip Workforce

Community outreach and partnerships can drive interest in STEM subjects and chip jobs among children, parents, and teachers.


A key factor in building a domestic workforce for the chip industry is attracting kids to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects at a younger age. That way they are more likely to follow through and attain the skills and degrees needed to enter the semiconductor job market.

Industry and government are partnering with schools and community organizations to address the challenge through a wide-reaching, multi-pronged effort.

“If we’re looking at the long game, we’re going to still have these workforce shortage conversations in another five or 10 years if we don’t make a dent in the K-12 system,” said Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation and its workforce development programs, in reference to kindergarten through grade 12 in U.S. schools. “If we don’t get kids excited or knowledgeable about semiconductors early on, they’re not going to pursue it.”

Making semiconductors interesting to kids
The consensus is that the best way to get young kids excited about tech is to make it fun and relatable. “The one thing that always helps is when you start connecting STEM to things that are cool, and of interest to them, like their parents’ phone, TV, or game system,” said Michele Robinson, director of corporate social responsibility at Keysight. “Then you can connect it to what they want to be when they grow up. They want to be an astronaut? Chips are needed in space. Or a sports person? You can give them an understanding of how sports scores work and the interaction of data.”

Keysight has a long-standing engagement in STEM education and a lot of its programs focus on under-resourced communities. “As a company, we look at it as a step towards building a skilled and diverse future workforce,” said Robinson. “But we’re also educating our future customers, educating our future board members, so there are a lot of different angles.” The company’s flagship “program in a box” is Keysight After School, where kids put experiments together, like a solar car, then take it home and continue investigating.

“It’s about piquing interest at elementary school, then showing some career examples at middle school, then focusing on engineering schools at high school with programs that are concrete and hands-on,” said Robinson. “Then, in university, you’re talking about research partnerships and getting the products into the lab so they’re actually using them and understanding them and moving forward in their educational journey so the interest converts to actual careers.”

Others agree you need to grab students’ attention while they’re young. “Young people now are very savvy,” said Danielle Ferguson-Macklin, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program manager at Teradyne. “They’re already tapped into what their passions are and what they want to do. Even though we know tech can be lucrative, most kids think it’s pretty boring, so we need to help them see the vision.” For example, if a child says they want to be banker, you can talk about FinTech apps so they become a coder instead of a desk clerk, and if they want to be a fashion designer, you can talk about automation and collaborative robots, she said.

Teradyne is involved with many STEM programs including a speaker series at high schools in Boston and San Jose; sponsoring Science Club for Girls; supporting the nonprofit Black in Robotics; and funding a college preparation program with Wentworth Institute of Technology, called RAMP. “We started going out to Burlington High School, which has a robust STEM program, but they needed people to connect the dots,” said Ferguson-Macklin. “We saw girls in one little corner of the room and the rest were boys, because the boys had already decided what they’re going to do in middle school. The girls had to be convinced in ninth grade. Without catching them in that moment, they would have missed out. We’ve got to start early, so part of our plan this year is to target middle schools that are ready to receive us. Not all schools are ready.”

Other companies are banding together to push STEM in schools. “By the age of 11, 13, kids haven’t made up their mind,” said Khaled Benkrid, senior director of education and research at Arm, which launched a global Semiconductor Education Alliance of academic institutions and industry partners including Cadence and Synopsys. “But if they don’t choose the right subjects at high school, they’re not going to go into an engineering or STEM career. Exposing the richness of hardware engineering and the semiconductor industry at a young age is important. A lot of it is abstracted away from people, like how a phone works — they see the app but they don’t see what’s behind it.”

Competitions are one of the simplest ways for a chip company to interact with younger people. For example, Lam Research sponsored the 2023 FIRST Global Challenge in which thousands of teens compete in robotics. Ansys partnered with F1 in Schools to engage students of all abilities in engineering competitions, while introducing future workforce skills and inspiring career opportunities. And Keysight holds an innovation challenge every few years that sees college students competing for cash prizes or tech for their institute.

While it’s true that many kids are motivated by what excites them, others may be drawn to the promise of job stability and good pay. That’s why STEM programs need to introduce the benefits of advanced manufacturing jobs to kids who are unlikely to attend a four-year college and get an engineering degree.

“From my experience working with students in schools, manufacturing is not an industry that is pushed very heavily at the younger grade levels,” said Cory Blaylock, director of workforce partnerships at IPC, which develops electronics manufacturing apprenticeship programs. “When you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, manufacturing typically doesn’t even factor into the conversation. A lot of employers are doing a good job of reaching out into their high schools and supporting robotics clubs and STEM involvement that way, so they need to enhance those efforts and make sure that kids know manufacturing is an option too.”

Fig.1:  Source: U.S. Department of Defense. Members of G-Force Robotics, a Defense Department-sponsored all-girls robotics team, operate their robot at the Pentagon, Jan. 23, 2024. [Photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders]

Partner with community organizations to inspire parents and teachers
Getting kids interested in STEM is important but it’s also crucial to convince parents, teachers, and community leaders that the chip industry offers a viable career path. The first challenge is to demystify any preconceptions people may have or fill in the blanks.

“We have a branding issue when we’re talking about high tech with industrial and manufacturing jobs,” said Karianne Gelinas, vice president of regional partnerships and talent strategies at the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. (LVEDC) in Pennsylvania, which supports the iTEC technician apprenticeship program. “Similarly with semiconductors, community members don’t know what building the hardware looks like. It hasn’t existed in the United States in large volumes for some time. So that muscle has atrophied, and we need to build awareness among parents — who are the main influencers on the students — as well as students and educators, so that they know what those jobs look like, here’s how you get those jobs, and why this is a great industry to be involved in. There are lots of reasons to talk about. There’s national security. They’re financially lucrative jobs. They are well trained.”

One challenge for chip companies is establishing name recognition in the community. “Everybody knows Apple, Google, and Amazon,” said Teradyne’s Ferguson-Macklin. “But we had to go out to schools and say, ‘You touch your cell phone in the morning, and there’s a high chance that it’s been touched by a Teradyne tester.’ Those kinds of statements help people understand the impact that we can make. A lot of our college partners also have programs that we follow behind and invest in. Those have been the vehicles that we’ve been riding into the high schools and middle schools.”

Where should a company start if they haven’t yet engaged with their community?

“My advice to industry would be to connect with state school boards,” said Ferguson-Macklin. “We’re lucky we’re headquartered in Massachusetts and there’s a lot of work being done in creating STEM programs and pushing it down further and further into elementary. Make sure your state has the programs, and if they don’t, help develop them. Reach out to see how you can make STEM more active, more public, and more interesting for kids.”

Keysight’s Robinson agrees you can only go so far and then you need partners. “All the different large school districts and underserved communities don’t have the teachers or teacher time to figure it out, so they work with partners that then work with corporates and government to give them what they need. A company can’t just show up on the door with their ideas. That’s where partnerships work out because they have those engagements already.”

Some of Keysight’s educational outreach partnerships:

  • Discovery Education is a digital learning platform, also open to home schools, where students can log in and explore STEM topics.
  • STEM Careers Coalition has the support of many tech companies and is based around class curriculum development and access. Keysight sponsors schools to gain access.
  • Learning Undefeated is a mobile STEM lab that can visit students from under-resourced communities in the U.S.
  • Technovation is a global program focused on girls aged eight through 18, who form teams and use technology and AI compete to solve real-world problems.
  • Try Engineering provides resources, inspiration, and guidance to empower educators, counsellors, and students around the world.

Government and industry could also offer financial incentives to get schools and parents on board, suggested SEMI CEO Ajit Manocha. For example, if teachers and schools increase STEM enrollment, there could get more funding. And if parents get their children to stay in STEM to college, they could get help with tuition. “The pandemic taught one good lesson — that semiconductors are central to everything,” said Manocha. “But if we don’t invest in the foundational activities of elementary schools for young kids, U.S. schools will never produce enough talent and we will always need to import talent from other countries. We need to do these things now to see the benefits in 15 years.”

Provide schools with curricula, tools linked to jobs
If industry and government want more young kids to take up STEM, then schools and teachers will need support in delivering new programs.

“K-12 STEM education in the United States continues to face many challenges,” said a National Science Foundation (NSF) report. “U.S. students’ scores on a standardized national assessment have remained essentially stagnant since 2007, and U.S. students rank below those of many other developed nations on international mathematics and science assessments. Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students, and students living in poverty continue to score well below White, Asian, and high-SES students on STEM assessments and have done so for decades.”

To help solve the challenge, NSF funds a wide range of initiatives at K-12 level and beyond.

In the U.K., a government committee focused on children aged 11 to 16 is backing the findings of a report by the British Computer Society (BCS), calling for reforms to the school curriculum such as reducing the dominance of rote learning and providing more opportunities to study creative, cultural, vocational, and technical subjects. BCS found that 94% of girls and 79% of boys drop computing at age 14 and suggested a digital literacy qualification to recognize technical knowledge and skills at about age 16.

Meanwhile, Arm’s Semiconductor Education Alliance is working with Arduino to train teachers on getting embedded computer engineering skills into the classroom. “We build a platform, bring people together, equip the platform with all sorts of resources, but then the community takes over after that,” said Benkrid. “It’s not just about producing effective software and hardware engineers. It’s also about equipping citizens to engage with technology more effectively. There is an influence piece there, especially with AI and the ethics aspects of it.”

The focus of the curriculum is hands-on, experiential learning, and more than 160 countries, 40,000 online learners, and 10,000 teachers from all around the world have signed up. “This gets me out of bed every day,” said Benkrid. “It’s truly a privilege to be doing this and to see the impact that it is having on young people all over the world. They want to learn if you give them the tools — they actually surprise you.”

The U.S. National Institute for Innovation and Technology (NIIT) recently established a semiconductor and advanced manufacturing technician apprenticeship program and the organization helps K-12 schools build curricula aligned to target positions in their region.

“If you think about how to get more people engaged, especially the first-generation folks who may not otherwise be inclined or able to pursue these jobs, you have to go to where they are,” said Mike Russo, CEO of NIIT. “The public education system is absolutely a way to deploy a strategy. For example, we established a Career Technical Education Center in the Capital Region of New York, where there are 24 school districts and 84,000 kids. So if all of those students establish profiles in our Talent Hub, then when they come out of their education, they’re already aligned with careers or registered apprenticeships. By taking that approach, the public education system is a feeder stream for employers.”

In Pennsylvania, iTEC also helps bridge the gap between education and jobs. “We do targeted studies asking employers, ‘Where are your skills demands? What occupations are hard to fill?’ Then we loop in our community and education partners so curriculum can be built in,” said Gelinas. Another tool in iTEC’s belt is its Hot Careers dashboard which breaks down the educational levels required for in-demand jobs, along with wage levels. “We disperse this information to the influencers who work with over 60,000 middle and high school students on an annual basis. Superintendents, principals, counsellors, and so on.”

Institutes then can build programs around the guide, or ask an iTEC rep to visit a school and speak to teachers so they can inform their students. “That’s one way we’ve sought to fill the gap around ensuring students at younger and younger ages are able to access information,” said Gelinas. “We’re constantly reevaluating where young people are getting their information and, overwhelmingly, employers are not meeting young talent where they are.”

For example, promotional content on platforms such as LinkedIn and Indeed may not reach young people, who are more likely to be on TikTok and Instagram. Another way to capture kids’ attention is through TV and movies, as evidenced by the uptick in physics majors when the “Big Bang Theory” was on air. “Reaching out to creative organizations such as the BBC and media is really interesting,” said Arm’s Benkrid.

What’s clear is that Generation Alpha, born between 2012 and 2024 and sometimes called the iPad Kids, are tech-savvy digital natives who are going to be entering a job market in flux due to automation, AI, and changing lifestyles. Winning this generation’s attention will be key to hiring and retaining them when they grow up, especially since Millennials and Gen-Z have shown a tendency to job hop.

“We all have to get out of bed in the mornings, and to the extent that we’re focused on work, we want to work on stuff that we like,” said Geoff Tate, CEO of Flex Logix, who had planned to be a physicist until a bad calculus professor caused him to take computer science instead. “It’s a matter of making any given program seem exciting and interesting and relevant to kids’ objectives. You can’t make them eat broccoli. You can only give them things to try and then they can pursue what they like. Good teachers make a heck of a big difference, too.”

To help solve a future worker shortage, schools need support so they can offer interesting STEM classes to younger kids. Meanwhile, community outreach is needed so that parents and the public at large know what semiconductor jobs have to offer.

“Folks need to know that if they are interested in STEM, then their destinies are intertwined with semiconductors,” said Teradyne’s Ferguson-Macklin. “When it comes to STEM education and advocacy, it’s no longer about competition. It’s about how we can help each other do better for the world and that’s how a collaborative community works. Lucky for us, we’ve got a great generation of kids coming through. But it’s up to us to help guide them — not dictate to them — and show them how tech can play a role in their future.”

— Ann Mutschler contributed to this report.

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Rob Pearson - RIT says:

There is another problem that is not mentioned in the article, specifically concerning the future engineering work force (not the technician level). Say you get a 12 year old interested in STEM and semiconductors. The bulk of the CHIPS funding is going towards PhD level research (10 more years in their future). There are few BS level engineering programs that focus on semiconductors. They have to do “other stuff” until they are grad students and they might lose interest. There needs to be more clearly articulated and publicized semiconductor centric BS level pathways to industry and grad school.

Liz Allan says:

This is a good point, thank you. The master’s and PhD programs seem to be well established with more being added, but there is room for improvement at the bachelor level so students aren’t lost to other specialities at that crucial stage of their journey, when choosing software vs. hardware paths.

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