While the pandemic has hurt many job sectors, the semiconductor industry can’t get enough qualified people. And that shortage is expected to persist for years, as companies reach deep into untapped talent pools around the globe.
Most in demand are experienced engineers and engineers with hybrid knowledge. Skills in machine learning and artificial intelligence are very desirable. Combined knowledge of power design and verification is up and coming, while jobs focused around the movement of data in a chip and working with advanced packaging are heating up. Yet despite shiny new hybrid jobs, some older technology is still alive and needs experienced talent. Understanding at least one ecosystem helps — and is necessary background for working with companies that have strong ecosystems.
What makes some job requisitions harder to fill are issues that go beyond the competition from large Internet-based tech companies, a well-known and often-blamed magnet that pulls talent away from the semiconductor industry. Complicating factors include the unevenness of engineering education, which may not directly target the semiconductor industry and how much knowledge is needed, making Masters Degrees and Ph.D.s desirable and required for some jobs.
The varied needs of the semiconductor industry mandate that workers have strong training in electrical engineering, software engineering, materials science, chemistry, or physics — or some mix of these disciplines. But that is only the beginning. On-the-job learning and continued education are always prerequisites for advancing a career. Talented engineers in their early careers may have to be wooed into the industry away from the large Internet tech companies in the first place. But now, with systems companies and automakers jumping into semiconductor design, the competition becomes even stiffer.
“Engineering will definitely continue to be the bottleneck for us, which I’m sure is the same for most high-tech companies,” said Ashraf Takla, CEO of Mixel. “And that will continue. It will drive more offshoring, more outsourcing, and more specialization.”
Growing more engineers is a priority, and many EDA and semiconductor companies are actively participating in university programs.
“This is a real challenge for all the high-tech companies,” said Lip-Bu Tan, CEO of Cadence. “We have a university program where we try to engage with professors and thought leaders to recruit the best student we can get. It’s not easy because you have to compete with Facebook, Google, Snowflake, and others. Some people even tell me that we should start from the high school now. Immigration is not helping us. We have to recruit talent globally, and the good news is that in India, China, and Europe there are some really good schools. We have a very active University program. Last year we endowed Carnegie Mellon University. We also have endowment professors at Berkeley and Stanford, and we’re going to engage with different schools to help with that. Another part of this is diversity. We have been working with universities in Africa to cultivate relationships with them. We also have a very active internship program, even with COVID. Some big companies decided to stop these programs, at least for this year, but we moved ahead and it turned out to be quite successful. Internships are the best place for us to recruit talent because we get to know them, and they work on some projects for us, so we can really select the best and get them to join. They also become the ambassadors in the university to share the news that Cadence is a cool company with a lot of innovation.”
Getting the word out to students early is important. Also continuing a conversation and nurturing a relationship helps. “Our hiring and recruiting teams spend a lot of time each year speaking to students, so we recommend taking the time to come talk to us about the work we do and the culture of the organization whether that’s on-campus or currently through interactions at virtual events,” said Ben Murphy-Ryan, senior director for global talent acquisition at Arm. “Internships provide a great opportunity to experience what life in Arm is really like. In the U.K., we are currently offering longer-term, part-time undergraduate roles, which offer people the chance to work with Arm teams alongside their work during term-time. Many of our graduates join us from previous intern programs, having returned a number of times because they really enjoyed being part of our culture.”
Hard to hire
Engineers just starting their careers are plentiful. Much harder to find for certain areas of the semiconductor industry are the experienced engineers with specialized knowledge. “In our industry, there are an adequate number of engineers,” said Andee Nieto, senior vice president and chief people officer at Xilinx. “That being said, the hard-to-fill jobs are what we call combo jobs, where companies have merged job skills together to form a new ‘hybrid’ type of role. When they combine these skill sets into one position, it makes it a lot harder to find the right person.”
Hard-to-hire jobs require:
- Years of engineering experience
- Varied industry engineering experience
- Ecosystem skill sets
- High-demand skill sets
- Niche technical skill sets
- Hardware expertise
- Managerial skill sets: leadership, decision making, communication skills
Senior engineers with a lot of experience — 15 years, plus or minus a few — who can lead and grow a team and take more responsibility are the hardest engineers to hire, said Mixel’s Takla. “It’s always about the senior people. Attracting young engineers is relatively easy, no matter where you are, maybe except for Silicon Valley. There are a lot of young engineers who are motivated to learn.”
“Basically, we have enough engineers now to fill all the jobs,” said Chancy Chen, director of HR and administration management at Amkor Technology in China. “However, there are also difficulties to fill the vacancies of senior and specialized engineering jobs.”
Others agree. “Hardware expertise always has been hard to find,” said Louie De Luna, director of marketing at Aldec, who has himself held engineer positions as an FPGA design engineer, applications engineer, product manager, and project manager. “But it’s more difficult to find now, especially at the manager level. If you’re looking for software engineers, they’re much easier to find.”
Brushing up on a niche can help. “There are number of positions that we are continuously recruiting for at Arm including compiler engineers, performance analysis engineers, and formal and UVM verification engineers,” said Arm’s Murphy-Ryan. “These roles require a fairly niche skill set and some also require a level of Arm technical knowledge, which is why these roles can take slightly longer to fill.”
Where the competition is highest
Not every company needs the same expertise, but AI/ML/DL are horizontal skills. They cut across multiple markets.
“There is a lot of industry competition for the high-demand skill sets required for machine learning, for example, and therefore those can be a challenge to fill,” said Xilinx’s Nieto.
Others are more specific, and while competition to acquire those skills may involve fewer companies, it may be just as fierce. This is true for areas such as SerDes architects, because very few engineers focus on that area. Architects who understand how to integrate multiple chips, or who work on the leading process nodes, may be equally hard to find.
The same is true for managerial/supervisory jobs in engineering. Soft skills count. “Emotional intelligence is important,” said Sivakumar P. R., CEO of Maven Silicon, who worked at a large EDA company in verification before founding a VLSI training company. “In the present world, the engineers have to acquire the technical knowledge with the right skills, including emotional intelligence, business communication skills, before their graduation at college, rather than focusing only on how to get a job with high income.”
Business knowledge is always a plus. “The demand for hiring top talent that possess technical expertise along with a strong business background is increasing. At Amkor, we are seeking qualified engineers that possess a strong business acumen, financial backgrounds that include P&L responsibility, excellent presentation and effective communication skills, previous product marketing experience, and a more strategic mindset,” said Paulette Galloway, Amkor’s recruitment director in the United States. “For some engineers, the interest in business comes later in their career, and they realize they can be quite good at it. It’s helpful if they’ve pursued an MBA, which further demonstrates their commitment to this career path. However, the talent pool with this background can be limited.”
Test engineers are tough to find, as well. “Test engineer is one of the hardest jobs to hire in the OSAT industry due to the job’s rapid increase in demand and the increased bar of required skill sets and knowledge,” said SangWon Chung, HR manager at Amkor in Korea. “The demand for test engineers skyrocketed due to the rapid development of high-end technology (RF/5G, automotive, IoT, and data center) that requires final test of highly advanced packages. For example, the RF packages integrated with various chips in SiP need highly developed test solutions, test automation, and test data analysis.”
Besides finding the right skill sets, there are concerns about cost and fit. “As we looked at some of the challenges, we have divided this into two categories, recruiter and manager worries,” said Xilinx’s Nieto. Recruiters’ worries include the cost of hard-to-find skill sets, whether those people are even recruitable, how long it will take to find the right candidate, and whether the company can maintain competitive compensation programs. Managers, meanwhile, are worried about ramp-up time and effort, long-term retention, and whether new hires will fit in with the existing team.”
The challenges are similar across the industry, but the individual skill sets required by a particular company or sector will vary. “AE engineers keep us busy, but at the same time scrum master positions are challenging, too,” said Kateřina Smrckova, senior human relations specialist at Codasip. “The latter are hard to fill due to the fact that nearly every IT company in the Czech Republic is currently trying to find one. The competition is tough, and relying on advertisements does not help. We use direct search and employee recommendations, and have been quite successful so far. Nevertheless, as our company undergoes a full Agile transformation, we will need more scrum masters, so the challenge persists. Application engineering combines the IP (or EDA) knowledge with sales, technical marketing, and certain psychological qualities that make filling the position especially challenging.”
Even in the best of circumstances, there are budgets to contend with. “You can never have enough engineers, but you will always make do with the budget and headcount that you have,” said Rob Knoth, Modus product manager at Cadence. “Engineering is a skill set where it gets pushed a lot to be very productive, but engineering isn’t unique in this. This is pretty much across the board. There’s a high degree of efficiency and a lot of attention paid on margin, overall. People have always been struggling with how to do more with less. We could definitely use more test engineers, but the bigger question is, will companies be able to always hire as much as they want? Just looking at some of our partners who are trying to hire in these positions, it takes them a really long time to fill.”
Around the world
Competition is truly global, and demand for qualified engineers around the world continues to rise.
“We do our R&D in Poland, and one of the biggest problems is finding qualified people there,” said Louie De Luna, director of marketing at Aldec. “It used to be easy, but people have more opportunities now than they did in the past. Competition is a huge issue.”
The trend has been underway for five years, slowly at first and then more rapidly as new markets opened up for semiconductors.
“About nine years ago, we started a team in Egypt, and that team has grown to about 60 people now,” said Mixel’s Takla. “They have done very well for us. But even in Egypt, we are again running out of experienced people, so we are looking into other places where we can expand. No matter where you go, and I’ve been really looking at that for the last five years, the biggest challenge is to find the highly experienced talented people that can do the stuff we need and, of course, the supporting ecosystem — the universities that supply younger engineers.”
In India, where the semiconductor industry is dominated by design service companies that employ engineers in design verification (DV), the story is much the same. “In India, we have thousands of engineering colleges and universities that produce 1.5 million to 2.0 million engineers every year, and there could be more than 100,000 electrical and electronics engineers every year. Yet, we are struggling to deploy 10% of them as skilled VLSI engineers for the semiconductor industry,” said Maven Silicon’s Sivakumar P R. “That’s the reason VLSI training academies like Maven Silicon are trying to sincerely find learning solutions in terms of delivering the VLSI domain knowledge and expertise toward bridging the skill gap between the semiconductor industry and academia, on one hand incubating the Centre of Excellence in VLSI for academia and ensuring that the skilled work force is job ready for joining the Tier 1 and service companies.”
As China ramps up its semiconductor industry, competition for talent is likewise stiff, says Amkor’s Chen. “The semiconductor industry in China is very hot now, and a lot of new companies, including wafer fab and design house, have started up. That leads to fierce competition for talent. Only a few universities in China set up majors related to the semiconductor industry, and even fewer universities have majors in the assembly and test area. The talent pool from universities is also very limited.”
In the United States, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) has long maintained that the U.S. has a shortage of engineers and needs to address that shortage through immigration policies. “SIA member companies experience challenges finding enough qualified U.S. workers with the advanced graduate level education, skills, and expertise needed to compete for the design and manufacture of advanced semiconductors,” according to an SIA white paper. “These skills include expertise in technical areas such as artificial intelligence/machine learning, advanced silicon design, advance manufacturing engineering and process development, software architecture, and quantum computing, and firmware engineering. Technical positions in the semiconductor industry include design engineers at the Master’s and Ph.D. levels in fields such as electrical and computer engineering, process engineers at the Master’s and Ph.Dl levels in fields such as chemical or materials engineering, and software engineers at the Master’s and Ph.D. levels in fields such as computer science or computer engineering.”
Bright future, new jobs
Job titles and roles undoubtedly will evolve, because of technological changes/advances, but what will semiconductor industry jobs look like in 5 or 10 years? Companies agree that the advanced nodes and efforts to go beyond Moore’s Law will change some jobs in the industry.
More specialization is on the horizon. “We believe that most current roles will still be around in 5 to 10 years. However, many of these roles will become more specialized, and some will morph into hybrid roles, requiring multiple skill sets,” said Xilinx’s Nieto. Advanced nodes “are driving job growth. The developmental cycle time, thermal management, and production costs are increasingly becoming prohibitive and are slowing down the advancement of nodes. Hence, most companies are looking at other methods to beat Moore’s Law. These methods include building larger/modular devices using chiplets (planar/horizontal integration) and/or stacking of devices in 3D (vertical integration). Note that both methods still require innovations in thermal designs. These alternative integration methods are continuing to drive job growth in EDA tools, IC design, verification, testing, thermal, packaging, signal integrity and many other areas.”
Markets ultimately will determine demand. “IoT, automotive and industrial markets bring nearly unlimited growth opportunities,” said Codasip’s Smrckova. “Take autonomous driving, for example. It still sounds like sci-fi, yet it is a real technology. But the pressure for safety will push our limits with regard to the reliability and speed of the chips. Application of new materials that will carry electricity faster than silicon? Use of quantum technology? Name it…dream it…but it will change our future teams for sure.”
Advances in technologies will bring more hybrid jobs and new job titles, as well. “As technology changes, we are adapting to the market, which requires us to create new jobs and titles. A creative job title can help attract the right talent for the opening,” said Nieto. “For Xilinx, the following jobs are becoming more and more in demand: software engineers — ML/AI/DevOps and applications; hardware engineers — board and system engineers; and hardware design engineers. From a needs perspective, the number of engineers needed depends on design and time to market.”
Amkor in Korea has seen demand for EFA, while Amkor in China focuses on intelligent manufacturing. “Recently, the demand for engineers who are capable of electrical failure analysis (EFA) has increased significantly,” said Amkor (Korea)’s SangWon Chung. “Spotting defects in the NPI process and optimization of highly advanced packages with EFA has become crucial in the OSAT industry. The EFA job shifted the paradigm for the OSAT industry from production-oriented to development-oriented. With EFA, Amkor is now actively involved with the initial development of packages.”
Adds Chancy Chen, from Amkor in China: “We pursue intelligent manufacturing, and the most wanted new types of engineers in China are engineers with both assembly/test engineering knowledge and IT automation skills. To improve productivity and work efficiency, we need to continuously optimize our processes and systems and replace manual operations with automation.”
Thanks to continually improving EDA tools, more automation in the process may speed some job duties. “Testcase/test automation will happen through the advancement of EDA technologies,” predicted Maven Silicon’s Sivakumar. “Similarly, RTLs would be generated directly from the TLMs/functional models. In the future, verification engineers will be part of creating the product specification, especially the test compliance, and driving plan-driven verification, owning end-to-end verification, although we might not need an army of engineers for regression testing. The new automation flow will demand existing experienced testcase writers with more product knowledge and domain expertise. Some of them could become EDA engineers, too, with their prior verification experience and domain expertise.”
“The future is brighter and more challenging than we can possibly imagine,” said Codasip’s Smrckova. “The only thing that can prepare engineering students for the future job types is their active interest in and enthusiasm about the new fields, followed by self-education and a passion for innovation. It seems that future processors will be faster, smaller, and just so different from the ones that we use today. New, super-effective materials, the power of subatomic particles — that all sounds so distant now, but who knows how soon it can become reality.”
Be prepared for human contact. It is important. “I have definitely noticed a change in students, but the change actually starts at a much younger age than university,” said Smrckova. “To me, it seems that all the social media and IT devices around us are changing the way we communicate with each other. It changes the way our children communicate with each other. They prefer the screen to a face-to-face communication, but no matter how technologically advanced we are in the future, the need for a simple human conversation will never lessen and will ever be needed for a proper functioning of our (future) teams. The art of being able to communicate efficiently with other humans — despite having conversations with the future intelligent coffee machines, TV sets, and cars — will never cease to exist.”
RISC-V may be a way to entice engineers into semiconductor industry and give them an invaluable broad understanding up and down semiconductor design, verification, manufacturing, and test process. “We introduced RISC-V processor RTL architecture design, HDL coding, and UVM based verification as part of our VLSI course curriculum at Maven Silicon,” said Sivakumar. “As part of the course, our trainees implement the RISC-V processor and use the same to implement an embedded micro controller SoC. It helps them to understand the complete product development cycle and how to apply all the theoretical concepts and create electronics systems like smart phones.”
Sivakumar noted that engineers need to be “strong in electronics fundamentals like digital electronics, analog, CMOS, and having a very good understanding of creating consumer electronic products like smart phones using chips or SoCs applying the fundamentals. For example, knowing the big picture how we create smart phones using an SoC that is built using ARM/RISC-V cores and software like operating system and applications. Also, being skilled in implementing any small processor and interface, RTL and verifications IPs, like RISC-V, SPI, AHB, UART using any HDL Verilog/VHDL, SystemVerilog, and methodologies like UVM will be very useful to differentiate as skilled from the other regular electrical engineers.”
With countries attempting to either startup or shore up their semiconductor manufacturing, more jobs in semiconductor engineering are bound to open up. The global competition will continue to be great for experienced semiconductor designers and verification, production, yield, and test engineers. The United States and Europe want to revive their semiconductor manufacturing, while China strives to grow its own chip manufacturing industry.
Building fabs adds jobs. “A modern fab can support from 3,000 to 6,000 jobs with local multiplier effects,” said Jeff Rittener, Intel’s chief government affairs officer. Fabs also provide many of indirect jobs, including fab tool support/service, specialty gases, etc. To get an eyeful of some of the jobs associated with the semiconductor industry, see the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections 2019 projected through 2029 for semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing.
Companies also need to take a broad view of the possible workforce. “Are we missing out on the next employee of the year because we aren’t thinking broadly enough about our workforce?” writes Kathy Garner, talent acquisition manager at TEL, in a recent blog.
At the very least, engineers with strong skills should be in demand for the foreseeable future. “When I was a young engineer, the demand for engineering talent was not as intense as it is now. But for the last at least 15 years, the competition for attracting experienced engineers has been really fierce,” said Ashraf Takla, CEO of Mixel. “And I can only see that that will accelerate and continue to be the bottleneck.”
Ed Sperling contributed to this story.
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