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Building a semiconductor workforce

ASU professors use grants from Intel workforce development program to expand and diversify microelectronics industry

A researcher works with semiconductor materials in a lab.

ASU electrical engineering professors Hongbin Yu and Trevor Thornton are developing Intel-funded grant programs to make education for potential semiconductor industry employees more accessible. Photo by Nora Skrodenis/ASU

February 06, 2023

As semiconductor production ramps up in the Phoenix area due to a strong national focus on domestic chip manufacturing and new fabrication facilities under construction, there is a strong need for workers trained in both engineering and manufacturing.

Semiconductor chip manufacturer Intel — which has had a longtime presence in Arizona — is helping to boost the number and diversity of workers available in the industry through their Broadening Participation in Science and Engineering Higher Education grant program. The grants are distributed from Intel to educational institutions in states where the company has a strong manufacturing and engineering presence.

Trevor Thornton and Hongbin Yu, both professors of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, have received grants to help train the semiconductor workforce of the future.

“Intel takes great pride in supporting Arizona State University’s semiconductor industry workforce development initiatives,” says Intel’s Arizona public affairs manager Angela Creedon. “These programs are essential to enabling Intel and the industry’s growth in Arizona and to helping ensure our workforce reflects the incredible diversity of our community.”

Gaining hands-on experience

Thornton’s work through the Intel grant program focuses on giving hands-on experience in building semiconductor technology to ASU students and those in the Maricopa Community Colleges. He and Zachary Holman, an ASU associate professor of electrical engineering, are facilitating this training through two types of opportunities funded by the grant: eight internship positions at ASU facilities and four open positions in a new summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU, program in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

“ASU students earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees to prepare them for various roles in the microelectronics industry,” Thornton says. “(But) we don’t graduate people with apprenticeship skills or associate’s degrees, which are great qualifications for a successful career as a semiconductor manufacturing technician.”

So, separately from the grant program, Thornton has been working with Maricopa Community Colleges to help bridge that gap. Thornton and colleagues at the community colleges have developed an associate degree in nano- and microelectronics with the goal of training more technicians who can operate semiconductor manufacturing facilities.

Rio Salado College is excited to train a new and diverse workforce for the semiconductor and nanomanufacturing industries,” says Rick Vaughn, faculty chair of Rio Salado’s STEM department. “Our students complete their labs at the ASU campus to receive the valuable hands-on training in the clean room, the NanoFab and other related facilities, which is essential to their preparation for careers in the field.”

Through the internship program, students from both ASU and Maricopa Community Colleges will learn various semiconductor manufacturing skills, such as etching, lithography and deposition, as part of a rotation program under the guidance of ASU engineering faculty members.

The entry requirements for the internship program are based on courses that students at ASU and Maricopa Community Colleges already take, which makes the application process quite straightforward.

The low barrier to entry is intended to enable students from diverse backgrounds to gain hands-on experience and embark on successful careers in the semiconductor manufacturing industry.

“Maricopa County is becoming a tech hub for many international companies with hiring needs for nanotechnology professionals,” Vaughn said.

The REU program will embed students in summer projects to help build new semiconductor devices that ASU faculty members and doctoral students are designing through their research.

To encourage diversity among the programs’ participants, Thornton and his collaborators plan to find participants for the program by recruiting students in their classes at both ASU and Maricopa Community Colleges. Both school systems are Hispanic-Serving Institutions as defined by the U.S. Department of Education, meaning the student body was at least 25% Hispanic in the school year before applying for the designation.

The internship program’s timeline is still in the works, while the REU program is slated to begin in summer 2023. Thornton and his colleagues plan to recruit participants from those in their classes.

“Companies like Intel and others are building huge factories in metro Phoenix and around the country,” Thornton says. “We need a skilled workforce to work here.”

Thornton hopes the demand for people to fill high-earning jobs and build careers in the semiconductor industry increases interest in studying microelectronics manufacturing techniques.

A new type of semiconductor education

Yu’s Intel-funded work focuses on expanding offerings in semiconductor packaging courses at ASU and the community college level while recruiting a diverse cohort of students for the programs from minority-serving educational institutions around the country.

He is working with fellow Fulton Schools faculty members Terry Alford, a professor of materials science in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, and Dhruv Bhate, an associate professor of engineering in the School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks, to launch new engineering courses in electronics packaging at ASU.

“Packaging involves more than electrical engineering. Materials engineering, chemical engineering and mechanical engineering are also involved,” Yu says. “It covers a broad spectrum of engineering disciplines.”

While the courses for ASU students aren’t part of the Intel workforce development grant, the grant comes into play by offering these courses to students at Maricopa Community Colleges and the student recruitment program.

The courses will not only be part of the associate degree programs, but also certificate programs that may require students to take just two or three courses. These certificate programs will be designed to give potential semiconductor industry workers more educational options, including online courses.

Yu says these programs also attract degree-holding workers who may be looking to switch industries and want to get up to speed on skills needed to produce semiconductor chips.

“Some people are already working at a company, but looking to expand or transition, especially with so many jobs that are microelectronics related,” he says. “Workers may be coming from out of state to seek opportunities, but there are many people right here in Arizona who can be retrained.”

As for the outreach programs to recruit more students, Yu says he and his collaborators plan to broadly reach out to potential students, including high schoolers, community college students, current ASU students and students enrolled at educational institutions that serve underrepresented populations. They aim to recruit 100 to 200 women and minority students from underrepresented groups over the next two years to join the program, which the professors plan to begin in 2023.

“We’re trying to pave the way for students to continue on to ASU after their initial exposure to electronics education,” Yu says, “or to find opportunities at companies like Intel where they can put their training to work.”

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