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ASU hosts microelectronics workforce panel with EMD Electronics

Four women seated onstage having a conversation.

Speakers who participated in the panel included (from left) Executive Vice President and Global Head of Delivery Systems and Services at EMD Electronics Katherine Dei Cas; Merck KGaA CEO Belén Garijo; Executive Vice President of ASU Knowledge Enterprise Sally C. Morton; and President and CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority Sandra Watson. The discussion was part of "The Future of Arizona: Leadership in the Microelectronics Workforce" event hosted at the Omni hotel in Tempe on Nov. 13. Photo by Paula Soria/ASU

November 20, 2023

Arizona is poised to regain its once promising position as a hub for microelectronics manufacturing, spurred by the development of multiple electronics fabrication facilities in the state.

In the wake of this rapid acceleration of semiconductor production, Arizona State University teamed with EMD Electronics, a chemical supplier for electronics manufacturing, to host a panel discussion about the future of the microelectronics sector’s workforce in Arizona.

Katherine Dei Cas, EMD’s executive vice president and global head of delivery systems and service, moderated the event at the Omni Tempe Hotel at ASU on Nov. 13.

Panel members included high-ranking women in their respective fields: Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise, representing the academic sector; Belén Garijo, CEO and chair of the executive board at EMD’s parent company Merck KGaA, representing industry; and Sandra Watson, president and CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority, representing the state’s citizen community.

Addressing industry needs

The experts began the discussion by focusing on the most pressing issues facing Arizona’s workforce. Watson emphasized that the number of microelectronics jobs available is outpacing the number of available workers, a need that reskilling and retraining can help to fill.

“The educational institutions are very, very active and are ensuring that they're working with industry to understand what their future workforce needs are and then clearly developing curriculum and programs around it,” she said.

Morton agreed that understanding industry needs is crucial for educational organizations to prepare the workforce of tomorrow. She said ASU considers these needs as it explores ways to engage learners throughout their life spans, whether that involves developing ways to encourage children to consider manufacturing careers or helping adults shift careers in different sectors of business and industry.

From an industry perspective, Garijo said Merck is embracing advanced technology and determining how to incorporate its use into the workplace responsibly and efficiently. She noted that rapid technological advances can shift demand for specific job skills to other skill sets, which then impacts the kinds of opportunities available for potential employees.

“Today, we have more data scientists in our organization than sales reps,” Garijo said.

The conversation turned to ASU’s leadership of one of eight U.S. Department of Defense Microelectronics Commons hubs, which are focused on the development of technologies important to national security efforts. Morton praised the hub, named the Southwest Advanced Prototyping — or SWAP — Hub, as a major factor in putting Arizona on the radar as an up-and-coming semiconductor industry epicenter.

Morton also said the SWAP Hub, which will receive $40 million of funding in its first year, will support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as part of its microelectronics workforce development efforts.

“If you’re not involved in the SWAP Hub, we hope you will be,” she said to those in attendance. “We’d love to have you partner with us.”

Building a great work environment and resilient supply chain

Dei Cas asked Garijo how, despite having begun 355 years ago, Merck is still regarded as one of the top employers in the world by leading business publications such as Forbes magazine.

Garijo explained her philosophy on hiring focuses more on an employee’s potential and the company’s likelihood of retaining them than focusing solely on credentials and experience.

She acknowledged that new generations of workers expect opportunities for their own personal growth and to contribute to their organizations in meaningful ways.

“Getting people excited about the social impact that we make, fighting climate change and our sustainability programs — that is what really matters at this time,” Garijo said.

Watson said that in her discussions with semiconductor industry leaders, she has learned that companies’ biggest concern is finding the right workforce to succeed in their particular business sectors.

She found the second major concern is securing the supply chain, which had its weaknesses exposed due to shortages of chips manufactured in Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That also gave us an opportunity because of those challenges during the pandemic to better educate the community on the importance of this industry and the impact this industry has on all the other industries,” Watson said. “The semiconductor industry really is a foundational industry that supports every other industry out there.”

Creating an accessible environment

Morton emphasized ASU’s efforts to prepare more workers for such a vital industry by making the semiconductor field more accessible for both traditional college students and those looking to change careers.

That effort includes making relevant information available through the university’s resources, including more than 70 academic programs and research centers, and putting it on the ASU microelectronics website.

Dei Cas praised the website, noting that she had already sent the link to her EMD team and encouraged its members to consider how ASU’s offerings could improve their capabilities without needing to acquire another degree.

“It’s not about getting a degree; it’s about just learning a new skill,” Dei Cas said. "So, I think there’s a lot of difference there.”

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