Veterans Could Close The Semi Industry’s Workforce Gap

A Penn State-led model to bring veterans into the chip industry could scale for broad workforce development.


Veterans are beginning to form a valuable talent pool for advanced manufacturing and chip-sector positions, helping to fill the current and projected future gap in qualified workers as new fabs come online, and adding discipline and skills that are difficult to find otherwise.

The job opportunities are many, and so are the possible job paths. In some cases, veterans are looking to make a quick jump from being a technician in the military to being a technician in a fab. In others, they may earn a college degree in engineering, while officers may seek high-level jobs in corporations. And because of their rich experiences, many have a knack for sales.

“We have gone through a massive program of re-skilling veterans for the industry, and we are starting to populate the talent pipeline,” said Ajit Manocha, CEO of SEMI. “Veterans are some of the most reliable and skilled people when it comes to technical jobs, and they come with great experience of dealing with sophisticated aircraft and helicopters and weapons. After their honorable service and exit from the military, many veterans end up doing security jobs for companies or banks, or they take delivery or retail jobs. But with their talent, skill sets, and experience, they can help meet our industry’s workforce needs. These are very disciplined people, and we have 200,000 veterans released every year. Imagine if we could get 30% to 40% of them. That would close the gap.”

Others agree. “Military personnel are an incredible group of people that can fit very well into this industry and just might not know it yet,” said Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation and workforce development programs. “A piece of our work is looking at the veteran community and seeing who would be interested to participate in apprenticeship modeling. The flip side of that is a lot of veterans come with an incredible set of skills, and they don’t need a full apprenticeship program to do anything in this industry. Our role has been to say, just like with K-12 students, somebody who’s transitioning out of the military might not be aware of the opportunities and jobs and roles within this industry that might appeal to them.”

Some of this already is happening. Teradyne, for example, has an established record of hiring veterans through a range of channels. The company’s in-house recruiters go to military job fairs to find talent, and veterans also apply via public job boards and LinkedIn. Teradyne’s hiring managers then have the option to send the resumes to a member of its Veterans Employee Resource Group to parse.

“I can point out some of the details that only another veteran could see in their military service,” said Garrett Boesch, who was in the military for eight years and is now the global supply base manager and chairperson of the Veterans Employee Resource Group at Teradyne. “We’ve had some really good veteran talent come to us these last few years, particularly from the Navy Nuclear Program. As soon as I saw the resumes for some of these candidates, I was blown away because I knew exactly what kind of person they were in the military. I would give that translation to the hiring manager, and they understood it quickly. We hired many of them.”

Along with general technical skills, veterans tend to have an accelerated learning ability, a high respect for procedures, and the ability to perform efficiently under pressure, which are ideal traits for technicians and engineers. Experience working with diverse people and a deep understanding of delegation make veterans ideal for management roles. In addition, veterans are motivated and inspired to complete mission-oriented tasks, which can easily translate to a sales position, said Boesch.

“You could take a lot of veterans and throw them into any situation and they’ll find a way to be successful,” he said. Often, chip-specific technical experience is the only thing missing on a veteran’s resume. “It’s an easy gap to get filled on a deeper level, and it can get done through education or on-the-job training quite quickly.”

Teradyne typically hires veterans who have at least an undergraduate degree. “It’s often the officer that’s coming to us, or it’s the enlisted person who took those steps to get their degree while they were in the military or after they separated,” said Boesch. “I finished my undergraduate degree while I served active duty as an enlisted person. I did it through correspondence courses, and it can also be done on bases. A lot of colleges worldwide have professors travel to take courses in-person on bases, and they can even get brought to ships for the Navy while it’s underway on deployment.”

Active-duty service members who have about six months’ service remaining until discharge can enroll in the U.S. Department of Defense’s SkillBridge program, and Teradyne recently filed an application to bring in candidates that way. “It’s similar to a college internship, except instead of being a college student, they’re still on active duty,” said Boesch. “They may get placed into the same employer that they did the program with if they have an opportunity, or they may not. There’s no obligation from either end.”

Once hired, the pay tends to be commensurate with what a person earned in the military. “It depends on whether they were enlisted and had technical roles or were an officer in a management role, and the type of job they’re coming into,” Boesch said.

How veterans can upskill, enter the industry
If a veteran did not earn a degree during service and wants one, there is Veteran’s Affairs (VA) funding available through programs such as the GI Bill, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and the Yellow Ribbon Program. Typically, a veteran can choose only one VA program, but these benefits may be used in combination with scholarships from universities, colleges, or industry. With or without a degree, veterans can enter the chip industry via a semiconductor apprenticeship or veterans fellowship program from the National Institute for Innovation and Technology (NIIT), or other apprenticeships.

Veterans also can apply for the 12-week Pennsylvania State University-led Microelectronics and Nanomanufacturing Certificate Program (MNCP) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). It started with four regional nodes — Arizona, California, Georgia, and Virginia — then expanded to include New York, Ohio, and Texas. Each node has a community college partnered with a research institute and chip industry companies.

“With the CHIPS Act and possible funding from different agencies, in addition to the NSF, we’re trying to scale up this experience, and maybe make it available to all community college students,” said Osama Awadelkarim, director of the Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization (CNEU), which runs the MNCP at Penn State. “We’re also trying through this model to encourage professional development and get the community college partners to be educated in this program and develop their own certificates and curricula to continue when this funding is completed by the NSF.”

Penn State manages the overall project and livestreams two-hour lectures to all nodes simultaneously, Monday through Friday; administers homework, exams, quizzes, and readings; and develops the curriculum based on feedback from industry.

“The universities open up their state-of-the-art facilities for the hands-on training for these veterans,” said Zac Gray, managing director of CNEU at Penn State. “The community colleges have an equally important role. They’re responsible for the recruitment of the veterans, so they’re the ones with the strong ties to the community. They also do the academic advising. For example, if a student is struggling, they provide a liaison to the program, where a technical expert can sit down and help the student in person. The final component is industry. Our industry partners give the students live-streamed presentations during their lecture time, speaking about their company, where the current job openings are, and how to apply. They also give them resume and interview tips.”

In the California node, the University of California San Diego (UCSD) has partnered with Southwestern College and GlobalFoundries, Intel, KLA, Micron, NXP, Qorvo, and TSMC.

“UCSD provides access to our nanofabrication and characterization facility, which is a multimillion-dollar infrastructure with skilled engineers to run it and support,” said Yves Theriault, program manager of education and outreach at UCSD’s Qualcomm Institute and executive director of education and outreach at the San Diego Nanotechnology Infrastructure. “It would certainly be desirable in the long term if some community colleges can acquire that type of infrastructure, but it is not the case right now.”

Fig. 1: Veterans study microelectronics and nanomanufacturing in the cleanroom at UCSD’s Qualcomm Institute. Source: UCSD

The plan is for UCSD and Southwestern College to eventually open a nanotechnology program independent of Penn State and available to the general population. “Students could go for a two-year program at Southwestern and then get a job, or they could use that education to transfer to UCSD and continue in the engineering department or an elected field,” said Theriault.

While people may need an engineering degree to innovate in the field of nanoengineering or nanofabrication, Theriault notes that the chip industry needs workers at every level. “Looking at the construction industry, you have civil engineers and architects, but you also need carpenters and plumbers,” he said. “Without them, you don’t have these beautiful buildings. It’s the same thing in our industry currently, especially following the CHIPS Act. We have a lack of technicians in the field of nanotechnologies — that’s what we’re looking for.”

In terms of prior experience before entering the program, Theriault has found that the veterans who do not have at least a high school degree in science, with some understanding of chemistry and physics, have a rough time. “We were very open for the first cohort, but with the second cohort, we required a high school degree in addition to all the skills they have acquired in the military.”

Others agree prior education is needed. “We try to recruit students who at least have some college coursework — if they have more than that, even better,” said Juan Gonzalez, professor of chemistry and co-principal investigator of the MNCP for veterans at Southwestern College. “Often they already have a science focus but, for example, one of the participants was doing a degree in child development and she gave a very compelling personal statement and did great on the course.”

After completion, the students can apply for an ASTM International certificate that employers recognize as an efficient third-party service, and Southwestern hosts resume workshops to help veterans with the job-seeking process.

Feedback from industry has been positive so far. “If we can provide veterans with good people who completed our training, they can teach them what they need to do at the company,” said UCSD’s Theriault. “Veterans make great candidates because they have lots of discipline and they have been in tough situations in which you need perseverance.”

In San Diego, the veterans come primarily from the Navy, but other nodes get a wide variety of veterans from the Navy, Air Force, and Army. “There is a lot of diversity especially in the Georgia and Arizona locations,” said Penn State’s Gray. “We have had officers and very entry level, as well. We don’t require a certain level to take this program. Essentially, the feedback we’ve gotten from industry is as long as a veteran was doing something relatively technical while they were in the service, those are the transferable skills that they’re looking for. They’re not so concerned with the rank.” The program also accepts spouses and dependents of veterans if a node has open seats, he said.

The amount of in-house training needed varies greatly from company to company. “Several of the students who went through this program are now with relatively small companies, where they basically took one skill that they learned, combined it with all of their background, and they were ready to hit the ground running,” said Gray. “And I say one skill because in the course of 12 weeks, we teach these vets several dozen different types of techniques, but oftentimes it’s just one or two of them that they’re really going to zero in on with their career.”

One industry partner told Gray that he considers veterans who complete the MNCP program to be the gold standard for an employee because they possess technical background and skills with basic electronics from the service. “They are disciplined, respectful, show up on time, and work hard. And then the cherry on top is they get this training — they’ve been in the cleanroom and know what the techniques are.”

Some companies or academic institutions may be concerned about military candidates dealing with challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the chip industry tends to be supportive, said Gray. “We don’t tell a student they’re not allowed to take the program if they show signs of PTSD. One of our recent students had a bit of jitters and you could tell he had been through some stuff, but he actually was one of the top students in the class. Those types of things should not discount a student’s ability, and the industry realizes that, as well. Every time an industry partner gives a talk to the class, they emphasize their veteran resource centers and support centers. For a lot of our industry partners, a large percentage of their company is veterans.”

How industry and academia can connect with veterans
Billboards, ads on TV and social media, in-person job fairs, online job boards, websites, and community outreach through local organizations are all good ways to reach veterans. But the best form of advertising is word of mouth, veteran to veteran, said Teradyne’s Boesch. “It’s powerful because there’s immediate trust you get from another veteran, and if they sound passionate about something that they’re doing in their lives, it’s contagious,” he said. “It’s what I do anytime I sense an opportunity to try to recruit a veteran into Teradyne. And if they end up working with one of our colleagues in the Boston area where there are a lot of semi-related companies, I take it as a win in building the veteran group in this area.”

A key way to appeal to veterans is to sell the strengths of how important chips are to civilization, whether for advanced weapon systems, infotainment, vehicles, health and safety, medical devices, communications infrastructure, energy systems, or food production and distribution, said Boesch. That way the job becomes part of their goal to serve mankind.

“Our modern life relies on semiconductors now and there are a lot of veterans who in hindsight value what their contribution to military service provided this world,” Boesch said. “To attach that same thought to what the semiconductor industry does for our lives can really connect with veterans in a big way, separate from how much money they’re going to make or what their day-to-day might look like.”

Meanwhile, a broad approach helps reach veterans across the country and let them know what is on offer in their area. “We host a careers website that was initially aimed at students, showing them the pathways that are available in this industry, and we partnered with the Department of Defense to offer the same thing for veterans,” said SEMI’s Liss. “Military personnel can get on our site and map their role and see where it best fits into the semiconductor and microelectronics industry. We hold hiring events on bases around the country for our member companies to recruit veterans as they’re considering transitioning out, in those last three to six months of their service. We’re also partnering with skills bridge programs that help with the leap from the military into industry.”

In Arizona, Penn State initially went out to Luke Air Force Base with a focus on skills bridge programs for active duty personnel but found it was more effective to focus on veterans, said Gray. “So now recruitment is more done through resource centers out in the community.”

Others agree it needs to be a hands-on, community-led effort. “There should be a bunch of us standing in front of the veterans saying, When you come out of the military, here’s what’s available,” said Danielle Ferguson-Macklin, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program manager at Teradyne, who comes from a Navy family. “Because you served us, we’re going to serve you — so I want you to know what your possibilities are, and here’s the right path to do it. I don’t think there’s enough of us doing that. And if we don’t do this together, we’re going to miss people. This is how you have veterans pumping gas for us, because no one took the time to tell them about other options. Sometimes in the heat of the mission, our military leaders don’t have time to do that. It’s going to take all of us in place in industry and academia to go out and actively get in front of veterans with information about semiconductor jobs.”

One way Ferguson-Macklin gets in touch with veterans is to pick up the phone when she hears about a program like the one at UCSD and Southwestern. “I’ll call my contacts and say, ‘Do you know anybody on campus that we can get in front of to see if they need help?’ I’ll find out if they need someone to come and talk about Teradyne or do an on-site demo. Those little things are important to further the knowledge of these underrepresented groups — and veterans are an underrepresented group. Two percent to three percent of the U.S. population has served in the military, so we can do this, and we can do better by our vets.”

Southwestern College has a direct relationship with the military in the San Diego area and it advertises on bases, particularly Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

“We have students who identify as veterans, and we also get a lot of interest from the general population through posters and flyers around the community,” said Southwestern’s Gonzalez. “One challenge in San Diego is that we have the veterans and many smaller companies, but we don’t have the big semiconductor fabs. So an advantage of recruiting veterans is they’re more likely to be prepared to move to where the jobs are — places like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and New York, or areas that are potentially getting CHIPS Act funding. We always ask, Which of these places would you be open to if an opportunity presented itself?”

Veterans are often looking for well-paid, meaningful work to match their time in their service. And when all the planned fabs are built, the chip industry will need a cache of quality workers. Fortunately, the infrastructure is already in place — and growing — to meet these needs.

“We need to put our industry in front of people as they transition out of the service, saying this is a viable pathway,” said SEMI’s Liss. “There are apprenticeship opportunities, if you’re interested in learning these skills and don’t already have them. There are middle management and senior-level management positions that some of you might be interested in doing. From a role perspective for veterans, it’s not just one. There’s so much opportunity, and a lot of it comes down to awareness. We do watch parties, just like we do with students, to answer questions like, ‘What is the semiconductor industry, and what are the plethora of roles and opportunities available?’ That image of white-coat fab bunny suits is often what people see in this industry, and they don’t understand the extent of what we need in terms of skill sets.”

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