NSF report led by UCSC computer engineer offers guidance for the future of chip design and manufacturing

Portrait of Matt Guthaus.
Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Matthew Guthaus.

Although semiconductor chips affect nearly every facet of American life from cell phones to cars to healthcare, the country is facing a shortage of both the hardware itself and students educated to take on jobs in design and manufacturing. A new report from a National Science Foundation (NSF) steering committee led by UC Santa Cruz Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Matthew Guthaus offers guidance on revitalizing the hardware workforce by increasing access to education. 

The recently passed CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law in August 2022, aims to promote semiconductor research, development, and production in the United States and will do so in part through funds administered through the NSF. Over the course of two workshops that gathered faculty from various universities, many of them from smaller state schools and minority-serving institutions, as well as representatives from industry and manufacturing, the steering committee generated recommendations for how the NSF might best spend those funds to promote healthy workforce development. 

The main proposal of the report is the establishment of a National Chip Design Center that would position circuit engineering as a viable career path and bring down the cost for universities to educate students in this field.

“Accessibility is the number one issue,” Guthaus said. “Everything stems from that – more schools, more classes, more students, more designers, more innovation.”

One of the main problems for the future of the semiconductor workforce, the report states, is that students no longer see the field as an attractive career path. While software engineering and its subfields have seen massive growth, estimates show that by 2030 there will only be enough qualified candidates to fill thirty percent of semiconductor manufacturing jobs. 

“Students are going into these other areas of internet startups and machine learning startups that seem like they're having a broader impact, but the point is that a lot of those things are only possible because the hardware is still supporting it,” Guthaus said. 

In the face of declining enrollments, universities are challenged to offer courses in chip design, which can be difficult and expensive to run, both because of the cost of materials and the barriers presented to the schools in accessing confidential, state-of-the-art software and other information to design the chips. 

While some elite schools have partnerships with companies like Google or Apple that give them extra resources, the report recommends that the National Chip Design Center would help even this playing field and allow smaller schools with more diverse student populations to offer these classes. This could also help address the stark lack of diversity within the chip manufacturing field today.  

“We need some way of amortizing the expense of setting up the design infrastructure so that many universities can replicate the same thing that a few schools are able to do right now,” Guthaus said.

Direct scholarships are another method recommended by the committee for how the NSF can support students entering the field, especially for students at state schools and minority-serving institutions. Teaching grants for educators could also help schools continue to offer hardware design classes when faced with smaller budgets  

The report also recommends open-sourcing hardware design whenever possible to decrease educational barriers. Without the expense of paying licensing fees for the tools needed to produce chips, or the need for universities to sign confidentiality agreements to use proprietary design tools, teaching chip design can become more accessible.

This idea has already proved successful in recent years when Google paid to open source an older chip technology from semiconductor engineering companies such as SkyWater and GlobalFoundries, which Guthaus and other faculty then used to teach students to design chips at their universities. For companies like Google, a larger community of people educated on hardware design means a better potential workforce for sparking innovation.

Additionally, the report recommends providing more educational outreach programs to students at the K-12 level to help eliminate the layers of abstraction between phones and other devices and the hardware that runs them to encourage early interest in the field.