Cleanroom Course Offers a Gateway to Microelectronics Careers

| June 28, 2024

California DREAMS pilots a path to a robust semiconductor industry pipeline.

Specialized learners receive instruction during the Cleanroom Gateway

Photo credit: Jonathan Van Dyke/USC ISI

Production and design of semiconductors and microelectronics is ramping up across the country, but experts say there are simply not enough people entering the field — with one of the main reasons stemming from a lack of hand-on experience.

According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, the field is expected to add 115,000 new jobs by 2030, but roughly 67,000 of those positions are at risk of going unfilled. Cleanroom workers at every level are needed in greater numbers to meet industry production and innovation goals. However, a lack of exposure and real-world training can turn off potential talent of all ages and stages.

To address this shortfall, the California Defense Ready Electronics and Microdevices Superhub (DREAMS) is conducting a pilot Cleanroom Gateway this summer for specialized learners and undergraduate students, with the goal of kickstarting a new pipeline of inspired and qualified workers by giving them their first experiences in a cleanroom setting.

“With America’s renewed commitment to domestic production of semiconductors and microelectronics, our workforce needs are significant across the industry,” said Andrea Belz, DREAMS director of translational strategy and USC Viterbi Vice Dean of Transformative Initiatives. “This innovative, hands-on training program will be at the forefront of helping to provide the talent that will meet our current and future demands.”

Led by USC Viterbi’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI), DREAMS is one of eight regional innovation hubs established under the Department of Defense Microelectronics Commons Program, which is funded by the CHIPS and Sciences Act of 2022 to develop onshore microelectronics hardware prototyping, lab-to-fab transition of semiconductor technologies and extended semiconductor workforce training. DREAMS has the goal of doubling the talent pool related to its specific technologies.

Moving from the classroom to the cleanroom

The Cleanroom Gateway is inspired by successes at hub partner University of California, Santa Barbara. There, Process Scientist Manager Demis D. John and his colleagues have been refining their course, CC-PRIME, that began in 2021. “A lot of universities have cleanrooms with extra time and space to run something like this,” John said. “If done correctly, we can create a lifelong career for people.”

Production of semiconductors and microelectronics happens primarily in fabrication facility cleanrooms — controlled environments that filter pollutants like dust, airborne microbes and aerosol particles to provide the cleanest area possible. In order for the operators, process engineers and design engineers to work at that microscopic level, the cleanroom filters air well beyond natural levels, and anyone inside is required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE).

Each Cleanroom Gateway cohort will last two weeks. Participants will:

  • Learn the basics of cleanroom operations and the work environment
  • Earn stackable micro-certifications on various laboratory instruments and equipment from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a leading engineering organization
  • Learn about obtaining a security clearance and career opportunities
  • Meet defense industry hiring team members
  • Receive help with résumé writing and interview processes

Awakening a dormant workforce

DREAMS will be tapping into a community that is often ignored: specialized learners who want to acquire new skills outside traditional classroom instruction. These candidates are ideal to take the course and become cleanroom operators, or pursue further education for design roles.

“From afar, the notion of producing hardware like microchips, sensors and other devices can seem intimidating and out of reach, but it shouldn’t,” said Jalil Bishop, president of MUME Collective, which leads the recruiting and support for workers aiming to upskill through the Cleanroom Gateway. Bishop said there are many applicable skill sets to be mined to meet the rising workforce needs. Operators need to be good with their hands, comfortable working in PPE, able to follow instructions, aware of safety considerations in the work environment, and willing to work on their feet for hours at a time. Applicants’ previous work experience could come from — but is not limited to — construction, auto repair shops, retail or an Amazon warehouse.

“There are a lot of different skill sets that can map onto this,” Bishop said. “The semiconductor industry is not new, it’s just that the manufacturing is coming back. You have big players coming in now saying we need thousands of technicians, and we needed them yesterday.”

The MUME Collective is leveraging regional workforce boards that are further connected to career navigation at the Los Angeles Unified School District for its recruitment efforts. “Sometimes our workforce development can be narrowly focused on just four-year institutions or college pathways,” Bishop said. “Our job is not to invent workers, but to tap into where workers are and help them to upskill.”

The next generation of scholars

The need for more hands-on training is not limited to specialized learners. Experts have long lamented challenges in retaining students pursuing electrical engineering at the undergraduate and graduate level — the people who fill process and design engineer openings.

Overall, the number of students studying engineering has increased, but that growth results mainly from computer science. The number of electrical engineering students has remained flat.

“We are simply not creating enough students trained in electrical engineering,” Belz said. “Augmentation of the curriculum is necessary because many students leave from a lack of hands-on experience.”

To address the college experience in engineering, DREAMS is launching its Undergraduate Microelectronics (ME) Commons Scholars program, where students will participate in the same two-week Cleanroom Gateway, and then work in the USC John O’Brien Nanofabrication Laboratory for six weeks as research assistants on technologies under development at DREAMS.

Making a model for the nation

This summer, DREAMS is piloting one cohort of specialized learners and two cohorts of ME Commons Scholars. The initiative has put together a Tracking and Evaluation team co-led by Karen Markel, professor of management at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and Kendrick Davis, associate professor of research at the USC Rossier School of Education. Consisting of scholars from across the country, this team will survey and take feedback from participants, instructors and industry partners to help refine and improve the Cleanroom Gateway for its next iterations.

“The California DREAMS collaboration underscores Rossier’s commitment to advancing educational equity through innovative partnerships that create meaningful learning and earning opportunities for historically marginalized communities,” Davis said. “Conducting collaborative research at the intersections of STEM education and workforce development will yield new directions and strategies for dramatically increasing the diversity of individuals and communities prepared for highly skilled jobs in these emerging industries.”

Over time, the intention is to increase the number of Cleanroom Gateway cohorts and expand it to all university nanofabrication laboratories. After that, the goal is to support DoD in national implementation, wherever possible.

“This program truly aims to transform the industry,” Markel said. “We’re seeing in the last five-to-ten years how organizations are thinking differently about training, education, degrees and all of those value propositions for meeting their workforce demands. This project is designed to build the skills and talent they need. The DREAMS project is a really innovative example of how industry is partnering with education for high-need workforce development initiatives.”

Published on June 28th, 2024

Last updated on July 23rd, 2024

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