Where’s the Chips Education Act?

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Martijn Heck is a professor of photonic integration at Eindhoven University of Technology.

Without the workforce, any industry policy is doomed to fail. So where’s the human resource plan to match the European Chips Act, asks Martijn Heck.

I don’t think Bits&Chips readers have missed the news, but let me recap briefly: we have a 43-billion-euro European Chips Act to take the manufacturing capacity of semiconductors in Europe to a 20 percent market share by 2030. That’s up from 5-10 percent, depending on which link in the value chain is considered. It’s a great and very welcome ambition. There has been much discussion about whether 43 billion euros will be enough, but that’s a moot point since the Chips Act doesn’t address the main bottleneck: people.

People install equipment and operate the fabs. People design the next-generation chips. People assemble and package these chips. People develop the tools to do all that. People come up with new applications for chips. People are employees of all players along the value chain. People establish startups and drive scale-ups. And, maybe most importantly, people teach people to be those people.

Growing the market share in keeping with our ambitions means doubling or tripling the EU workforce in the field of semiconductors. Seemed like a no-brainer to me, so I naively asked a European policy adviser about the “Chips Education Act,” to match the ambitions of the Chips Act. To my surprise, he thought that it was an excellent idea, and he encouraged me to contact relevant Members of Parliament. Silly me, assuming that the people involved in the Chips Act would have considered the human resource aspect. After all, without the workforce, any industry policy is doomed to fail.

Do we have a problem here? Let’s quickly assess the state of higher education in electrical engineering, a main supplier of talent. According to the Shanghai Ranking, in electrical and electronic engineering the global top 50 includes only three EU-based universities, and Dutch universities don’t even make the top 100.

So yes, we have a problem. We’re not competitive. Part of the reason is clear: we lack industry, and – as a result of that – research funding and interest from high school students, who don’t look to semiconductors for a career. We know all that, which is why we have the Chips Act in the first place. Problem solved? If we invest in industry, do we magically double student intake?

I don’t think so. It runs deeper. After having worked in various countries, I realize that in Europe, especially Western Europe, we – the society – lack respect for the engineering sciences. The academic ivory tower looks down on IEEE journal publications and research that’s not blue sky. Natural sciences get funding for curiosity-driven research, while the engineering sciences typically need to come up with co-funding and have to ply their research at the whims of the funder.

Our newspapers rarely write about deep tech and prefer to serve their readers more popular science news “because it has a high impact on our lives” … which they then ironically read from their smartphones. Chriet Titulaer is still the Dutch paragon of technology outreach. And to top it all, the Simon Stevin Master award, the highest Dutch distinction for engineering scientists, was rebaptized into the Stevin Prize for knowledge utilization in 2017, with the sad outcome that ever since no engineer has won it.

We’re not a society that values deep tech. Until only a few years ago, Unilever was far better known in the Netherlands than ASML. In Denmark, where I used to work, I put a poster on my office door with the famous quote of Von Kármán: “Scientists study the world as it is, engineers create the world that never has been.” I had students coming into my office, thanking me for making clear the value of engineering, as they felt looked down upon by the other science disciplines.

Without a matching comprehensive investment in education, from primary school to university, from professional and vocational education to PhD level, any Chips Act will fail. It will lack the primary resource: talented people and ideas. Don’t just take my word for it. Have a look at South Korea. While the whole world is investing in semiconductor fabs, they stepped up their game and unfolded a plan to educate 150,000 engineers for their semiconductor workforce by 2030.