The passage of the landmark CHIPS and Science Act, which allocated $52.7 billion to America’s semiconductor industry, has already set in motion an unprecedented flurry of activity, deals, partnerships and investment — the numbers are staggering: 

  • Micron is investing $40 billion in memory-chip manufacturing — an investment that is expected to single-handedly raise America’s market share from less than two percent to as much as 10 percent.
  • Intel has committed more than $20 billion to construct two new leading-edge chip factories in Ohio — the largest-ever private-sector investment in the state’s history. 
  • Samsung is investing $17 billion to construct a new advanced semiconductor production facility in Texas. 
  • Meanwhile, Qualcomm and GlobalFoundries have just launched a $4.2 billion semiconductor manufacturing partnership. 

All told, factoring in private-sector contributions, the net business investment in American semiconductor manufacturing now stands at nearly $150 billion. It’s a level of investment that calls for new ways of thinking and new strategic roadmaps.

Why? Because the organizations behind those efforts — companies ramping up production capabilities and hoping to see ROI — will face a tremendous hurdle: namely, the ongoing shortage of qualified design, verification and validation engineers available. It’s a context in which upskilling and reskilling initiatives have probably never looked so good from a business perspective. Indeed, that’s probably going to be the only way forward for most companies in the field.

There’s a lot at stake, in any case, which is why it’s probably wise to start thinking critically about how engineering employers can best pivot their workforces to prepare for the future. But who should you upskill or reskill, and when — and even how? Which engineering skill sets or competencies are readily transferable, and which aren’t?

In answering these questions, we’ll be paying particularly close attention to the skills associated with two of the most common semiconductors used in electronics today: application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs).

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There’s this huge scarcity of verification engineering talent — you won’t see very many mid-level professionals in the field looking for new opportunities, for example, because they're getting snatched up within, say, six hours of entering the job market. That’s just the reality of supply and demand right now.

Peter Parsons, FPGA/ASIC solutions principal at Randstad USA

common paths to careers in FPGA and ASIC engineering

Upskilling and reskilling challenges and opportunities loom on the horizon, as we have discussed, but to understand the best course of action, it may be useful to first sketch a kind of composite profile:

  • Who are the design, verification and validation engineers overseeing the manufacture of FPGAs and ASICs in the workforce today? 
  • What are their backgrounds?
  • What are the most important skills that they possess?

By answering those questions, we’ll be able to zoom in on key skills and characteristics, which we can then use to identify similarities and areas of overlap with other engineering roles.

To get started, then: Design, verification and validation — the three essential pieces of manufacturing FPGAs or ASICs — should be understood as fundamentally electrical engineering disciplines.

As a result, most of the engineers in this field share certain commonalities: Some have advanced degrees, to be sure, but the majority are products of four-year programs in one of two fields: electrical engineering or electrical and computer engineering.

Coming out of school, therefore, they bring to the table a mix of basic engineering and digital design skills, including knowledge of how to work with computer digital logic. They likely have some level of programming expertise using object-oriented languages like C or C++ as well. And they may have hands-on experience working with FPGAs, too — ASICs would be cost-prohibitive at the undergraduate level — often as part of a senior project.

Put these disparate elements together and you have a solid foundation for a career as an FPGA or ASIC engineer.

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The foundries where FPGAs and ASICs are being manufactured are like bakeries where you might make a cake — except that these bakeries cost about $20 billion each to build.

Peter Parsons, FPGA/ASIC solutions principal at Randstad USA

the upskilling and reskilling outlook

Based on what we’ve covered so far, it might sound like a good idea to take software engineers — that is, computer science graduates who understand object-oriented programming and have some C++ experience, but who aren’t electrical engineers — and upskill or reskill them into verification engineers for digital design.

Not so fast. In Peter’s experience, the answer is more “no” than “yes.”  

Here’s Peter: “You can take a good software person and teach them the basics — system error logging, UVM and so on — and from there they can start writing tests. But the real job of verification engineers isn’t just to write the tests, but to execute them in a simulator — and then, when the simulator detects errors or bugs, to debug them and figure out whether the error is in the test or in the design. What we’ve found is that, when people don't have a digital design background or experience with clock logic, they generally find it very difficult to debug designs in this manner.” 

Cross-training current employees whose backgrounds are 100 percent in software may not be the best approach, in other words. 

A better tactic, in Peter’s experience, is for organizations to redouble their focus on upskilling early-in-career professionals and nudging them toward verification career paths. 

Another suggestion for organizations looking to implement high-impact solutions over the near term: talent development partnerships. In fact, that’s probably the best way to go.

After all, even if the CHIPS and Science Act is intended to reshore semiconductor manufacturing to the U.S., that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a few lessons from practices overseas — and the recent launch of so-called “chip schools” in Taiwan, part of a public-private partnership, is a case in point. This is a country that manufactures 65 percent of the world's semiconductors, and almost 90 percent of the most advanced chips, so if they’re concerned about critical talent shortages, we should probably take note. They might have things to teach us, too.

key takeaways

With the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, not to mention the rising deployment of high-performance computing (HPC), the increased adoption of AI technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT) and the proliferation of communications infrastructure globally, it should come as no surprise that competition for top talent is fierce right now. And with the FPGA market alone valued at $6.2 billion last year, and expected to more than double in value over the next 10 years, that isn’t about to change any time soon.

In fact, the greatest check on growth for engineering employers could easily be the lack of qualified talent in the field, which might even be exacerbated by the CHIPS and Science Act’s timeline for implementation. Notably, of the act’s five priority areas, the two that most directly impact engineering employers — “Domestic Manufacturing Incentives” and “R&D and Workforce Development Incentives” — are unique in how the investment is scheduled, with the majority of money released up front, and progressively lower levels of investment in each subsequent year.

To make a long story short: The competition for talent is going to heat up in a major way very soon. 

Ready to learn how Randstad can help with everything from best-in-class talent development and upskilling programs to contingent, permanent and project-based solutions? Click here to learn more — or schedule a meeting with us if you want to get started. 

Alternatively, if you’re interested in FPGA or ASIC engineering careers, start exploring opportunities with Randstad right away.