China ramps up efforts to develop home-grown semiconductor talent amid U.S. restrictions


29th March 2023 – (Shanghai) China is making a concerted effort to address a shortage of semiconductor talent by ramping up enrolments for undergraduate and post-graduate courses. The move is aimed at filling the gap created by US restrictions on China’s access to advanced chip technology. The shortage is so acute that some graduates with degrees in other subjects are being lured into the industry, attracted by the prospect of promising employment opportunities and rising salaries.

Enrolments in courses have surged over the past five years thanks to new funds for top universities and the growth of smaller private schools focused on shorter-term instruction. According to a white paper jointly published by the China Center for Information Industry Development and the China Semiconductor Industry Association, China faces a shortage of an estimated 200,000 industry workers this year.

However, Chinese graduates and experts have told Reuters that emerging chips curriculums in China do not provide the hands-on industry experience offered by more advanced schools in Taiwan and the United States. Recent surveys have also found that more than 60% of students studying chip engineering in China graduate with no internship experience in the field.

While the shortage is acute, the challenge of closing the gap will be a long-term campaign. Despite the surge in enrolments, Chinese universities tend to reward professors across all fields for publishing papers, rather than teaching up-to-date methodology that is useful in a company laboratory or chip manufacturing plant.

To address these issues, China’s largest chip foundry, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), announced a jointly-established School of Integrated Circuits at Shenzhen Technology University. In addition, private schools have sprung up to offer a short-term solution, with chip engineering bootcamps that purport to provide a fast track for graduates who majored in a subject tangentially related to chip engineering.

The supply-demand imbalance has seen the average annual salary for an entry-level engineer in the sector double since 2018, from roughly 200,000 yuan (US$28,722.43) to 400,000 yuan. While enrolments to study chip engineering at 10 top universities nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022 to a total of 2,893 students, more needs to be done to close the gap.

The challenge for China is to prioritise training talent even over seeking immediate solutions to its supply-chain issues, according to Liu Zhongfan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. China’s emergence as a leading chip manufacturer depends on the development of home-grown semiconductor talent that is able to operate across the entire supply chain, from research to manufacturing.