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Why is Taiwan's chip fabrication sector worst hit by talent shortage?

Misha Lu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Credit: DIGITIMES

"When I did my research at Stanford University, the cleanroom was mainly staffed by those from East Asia and India," recalled Dr. Chih-Huang Lai, Vice Dean of the College of Semiconductor Research under Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) - long a hub of Taiwan's IC talent cultivation. "In the foreseeable future, we might no longer see Taiwanese in Taiwan's own cleanrooms as well," Lai lamented.

Headed by Dr. Burn J. Lin, the famed TSMC legend who invented immersion lithography, the College of Semiconductor Research was founded in late 2021 in response to the Taiwanese government's policy to address the country's deteriorating semiconductor talent shortage challenge.

At the forefront of Taiwanese semiconductor education, Lai has firsthand experiences of the challenges at hand as well as solutions.

"More and more Taiwanese students are reluctant to enter fabs," observed Lai. The former head of NTHU's College of Engineering noted that even though TSMC's R&D engineers are no longer required to enter fabs, the lack of such hands-on semiconductor fabrication experience will ultimately impact production yield and how problems are approached.

Equipment and their tremendous maintenance costs are also prohibitive factors. According to Lai, faculty members conducting research on semiconductor fabrication processes simply cannot afford the expensive equipment required. Even if they are donated by the industry, the maintenance costs remain daunting.

Consequently, in NTHU for example, only 5-6 faculty members are left who still operate labs capable of addressing chip fabrication education. In other words, according to Lai, most students nowadays learn about the relevant process through textbooks, and many staff members formerly specialized in fabrication had to turn to research subjects that are less demanding on equipment.

Lacking immediate access to production equipment, as Lai put it, also bears on the verification process. "A process design that would take at least two weeks, for example, could be forced to start from scratch if it failed to pass the verification," indicated Lai, citing it as a key factor deterring students from pursuing fabrication-related research.

Getting to the root of the problem

Six to seven years ago, 70-80% of new engineering students would major in material science and plan to join TSMC after graduation, observed Lai. Nowadays, a conservative estimation sees more than half of them pursuing computer science - a process accelerated by the rise of AI.

Therefore, Lai believes that the talent shortages faced by material and process-related segments will be more severe than those faced by chip design. Nevertheless, Lai also sees challenges unique to chip design: the strong demand for chip design talents has led many of them to be directly recruited after completing graduate studies, drawing them away from doctoral research.

As a result of TSMC's continuous pursuit of advanced process technology, the foundry has a high demand for talents with more complete engineering training. Thanks to that, according to Lai, material science-related doctoral research continues to attract outstanding students. In the long run though, the number of such students will gradually decline, which is a problem not yet fully realised by Taiwan's semiconductor industry.

To address the challenges, the key lies in how Taiwan's semiconductor industry approaches the art of talent cultivation. The industry, according to Lai, has to think from a macro perspective, and seeks to retain talents in the educational institutes via measures such as funding equipment maintenance and refraining from keeping people tied up in the business sector through lavish scholarship offerings.

As Taiwan's semiconductor educational institutes remain predominantly dependent on periodic government research grants that cannot sustain long-term research projects, Lai called for industry leaders such as TSMC and MediaTek to increase the involvement of university research teams in the development of new process technologies and material.

In addition, Lai also drew attention to the attractiveness of Taiwan's higher education system itself, pointing to the lack of incentives for students to remain within academia after obtaining master degrees, as the industry offers much higher salaries. "When I applied for the role of assistant professor at NTHU back in 1997, around 100 others were vying for the same position," said Lai, "Now, we'd be lcuky if we had 20 applicants."

Credit: DIGITIMES

Dr. Chih-Huang Lai, Vice Dean of the College of Semiconductor Research under Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University. Credit: DIGITIMES

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