While Ireland has punched above its weight in the semiconductor space in the past, a lack of talent could undo it.
In recent years, there has been growing concern about the world’s semiconductor industry amid ongoing shortages and rising demand.
With the introduction of a huge amount of electronics through chips, the production of smartphones, laptops, game consoles and other devices has been seriously affected. The auto industry has also felt the shortfall.
The shortage has sparked a conversation about the world’s dependence on smelters in the US and Asia for this critical technology component.
In response, the EU has also developed a €43 billion strategy to become a leader in the semiconductor sector.
The act was tentatively agreed by the European Council and Parliament last month and aims to double the global semiconductor market share to 20% by 2030, while protecting Europe’s supply chain.
Meanwhile, the UK earlier this week unveiled its strategy to build and protect its semiconductor sector, with plans to invest £1bn over the next decade.
But as policymakers and industry players make concerted efforts to boost chip production, this will expose another problem that’s already chronic in the tech industry: skills shortages.
“It’s a bit like the stock market”
Working in the semiconductor industry was once an extremely popular career option, but has this popularity waned for working in the many other growing areas of emerging technology?
Peter Kennedy, professor of microelectronic engineering at University College Dublin, said the semiconductor industry had always been cyclical.
“When there’s a recession, demand for goods goes down and labor contracts go down a little bit. “When a recession ends, or a new technology emerges, the demand for microchips and the engineers who design them goes up,” he said.
“It’s a bit like the stock market. The main trend has been a consistent exponential growth as semiconductors are constantly being used in more and more applications. It’s not over any time soon.”
For such a small country, Ireland has traditionally punched above its weight in the chip industry, building a competitive edge for almost 50 years.
“To continue our leadership in the semiconductor industry, we need a steady supply of electronic engineering graduates”
Analog Devices opened a chip manufacturing plant, also known as a fab, in Limerick in 1976. This was followed by the opening of Intel’s European Manufacturing and Technology Center in 1989, which helped make Ireland a key hub for the semiconductor industry.
“When you have people who know how to build and run a forgery, it’s easier to win another one. That’s why Analog Devices and Intel have been able to continuously develop their manufacturing operations for four decades,” Kennedy said.
“When you have people who can design chips and university researchers who can feed new ideas, the industry will flourish. That’s why we have world-class chip design centers in Cork, Dublin and Limerick.”
A lack of skills could be Ireland’s downfall
While Ireland’s track record in the chip industry is impressive, skills shortages can pose serious challenges.
“The world is not waiting for new technologies. If we don’t do it in Ireland, it will be done somewhere else. If you’re ahead in this field, you should stay ahead,” Kennedy said.
“To continue our leadership in the semiconductor industry, we need a steady supply of electronic engineering masters and doctoral-level graduates who are the best in the world at what they do in design, manufacturing and applications.”
The technology industry suffers from a skills shortage, but the nature of working with semiconductors means it needs a huge range of skills.
Making a chip involves physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electronics, computer science, and statistics.
Kennedy said that when it comes to the design side of things, companies like AMD, Analog Devices, Intel, Qualcomm and others mostly need electronic engineers who are good at math and computing.
“On the design side, AMD, Analog Devices, Bosch, Intel, Infineon, Qualcomm and others mostly need electronic engineers who are creative, good at computers and good at math.”
There are applications for chips beyond their design. Most people may take for granted that everyone has a smartphone, that TVs are big and flat, that cars can alert you when you pee, or that your glucose levels can be continuously monitored. But all these things require semiconductors.
“We need people here who know the application domains — energy, entertainment, health, etc. — and love using technology to make the world a better place. Biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, business and soft skills are useful.”
Rebuilding Ireland’s skills pipeline
To avoid being left behind in the semiconductor industry, Ireland needs to consider how to ensure that the pipeline of engineers, especially electronic engineers, remains strong.
“The semiconductor industry, through MIDAS Ireland, is doing a good job of promoting electronic engineering as a career, but it is starting too late. The country needs a lot more electronic engineers, and we need to start developing talent earlier in the school system,” Kennedy said.
“Start by offering applied mathematics in as many secondary schools as possible. Also, make it as easy as possible for highly qualified engineering graduates to immigrate to Ireland to support industry here.”
He added that universities are key to producing highly skilled engineering graduates, while the National Microelectronics Research Center and its successor, the Tyndall National Institute, have played a fundamental role in developing talent to support the semiconductor industry.
“It is vital that the State continues to invest in keeping Tyndall at the forefront so that semiconductor research in Ireland is the best in the world.”
Reflecting on his own role, Kennedy said educators also need to better explain the opportunities the field offers and the real impact semiconductor professionals have on the world.
“As engineers, we are sensitive to this and see the transformative power of semiconductors everywhere we look. Others may be dismissive of technological advances without realizing the role that Irish-educated and Irish-born engineers have played and continue to play in their development.”
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