NSF report led by UCSC computer engineer offers guidance for the future of chip design and manufacturing

Although semiconductor chips affect nearly every facet of American life, from cellphones to cars to health care, the country faces a shortage of hardware itself and trained students to occupy jobs in design and manufacturing. A new report of a National Science Foundation (NSF) steering committee led by UC Santa Cruz computer science and engineering professor Matthew Guthaus offers advice on revitalizing the hardware workforce by improving the access to education.

The recently passed CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law in August 2022, aims to promote research, development, and production of semiconductors in the United States and will do so in part with funds administered by the NSF. During two workshops that brought together professors from various universities, including many from smaller public schools and minority-serving institutions, as well as representatives from industry and manufacturing, the steering committee formulated recommendations on how NSF can best spend these funds to promote healthy workforce development.

The report’s main proposal is the creation of a National Chip Design Center that would position circuit engineering as a viable career path and reduce the cost to universities of training students in this field.

“Accessibility is the number one issue,” Guthaus said. “Everything stems from this – more schools, more classes, more students, more designers, more innovation.”

One of the main issues for the future of the semiconductor workforce, the report says, is that students no longer see the field as an attractive career path. While software engineering and its subfields have seen massive growth, estimates show that by 2030 there will only be enough qualified applicants to fill thirty percent of jobs in semiconductor manufacturing. .

“Students are getting into these other areas of internet startups and machine learning startups that seem to have a broader impact, but the fact is that a lot of these things are only possible because the hardware still supports it” , Guthaus said. .

Faced with declining enrollment, universities are being challenged to offer chip design courses, which can be difficult and expensive to organize, both due to the cost of materials and the barriers schools face in accessing to confidential and state-of-the-art information. art software and other information to design the chips.

While some elite schools have partnerships with companies like Google or Apple that give them additional resources, the report recommends that the National Chip Design Center help even that playing field and enable smaller schools with more diverse student populations. to offer these classes. It could also help address the glaring lack of diversity in chip manufacturing today.

“We need a way to recoup the expense of setting up the design infrastructure so that many universities can replicate the same thing that a few schools are able to do right now,” Guthaus said.

Direct scholarships are another committee-recommended method of how NSF can support students entering the field, particularly for students in public schools and minority-serving institutions. Teaching grants for educators could also help schools continue to offer hardware design courses when faced with tighter budgets.

The report also recommends designing open-source materials wherever possible to reduce barriers to education. Without the expense of paying license fees for the tools needed to produce chips, or the need for universities to sign confidentiality agreements to use proprietary design tools, teaching chip design can become more accessible.

This idea has already proven itself in recent years when Google paid to open up older chip technology from semiconductor engineering companies such as SkyWater and GlobalFoundries, which Guthaus and other professors later used to teach students to design chips at their universities. For companies like Google, a larger community of people trained in material design means a better potential workforce to drive innovation.

Additionally, the report recommends providing more educational outreach programs to K-12 students to help break down the layers of abstraction between phones and other devices and the hardware that runs them to encourage early interest in the domain.

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