21 Sep 2023
by Stewart Edmonson

How can the UK develop the next generation of semiconductor chip designers?

Guest blog from Stewart Edmonson, CEO of The UK Electronics Skills Foundation. Part of techUK's #SuperchargeUKTech Week 2023.

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We know that semiconductors or ‘chips’ are critical to the functioning of our modern world.   Semiconductor integrated circuits (ICs) are the building blocks for so many of the electrical products we use today, from smartphones to supercomputers, from cars to medical devices, and pretty much every electrical item we use on a daily basis. 

However, if our industry is going to compete on a global stage, we need to tackle the chronic skills shortage. 

The UK’s chip design community has been one of the world’s leaders in technological innovation for decades. Its long track record of success has made the UK an attractive location for home-grown and international companies to establish chip design organisations, and there are now around 1200 integrated circuit design professionals in the UK. Unfortunately, the supply of skills does not currently match the growing demand, and over 80% of UK companies with any chip design capability are seeking new engineers. 

This shortage is exacerbated by a specific skills gap; semiconductor chip design relies on a supply of strong intellectual talent, with specialists tending to be at a postgraduate (doctoral or masters-qualified) level. 

However, as acknowledged in the Government’s recent National Semiconductor Strategy (section 7.4), there is a gap between theoretical teaching and practical skills. Plus, for some roles, people take more than two years before being able to work unsupervised. Nearly one hundred semiconductor companies with a UK presence took part in an Institute of Physics survey, with over half stating that one of the biggest factors explaining recruitment difficulties was applicants lacking the required specialist skills or qualifications. 

So, what can be done to tackle this problem and the develop the next generation of semiconductor chip designers?  

The UK Electronics Skills Foundation (UKESF) and Pragmatic, world leaders in semiconductor innovation, want to establish a Chip Design Academy. UKESF is the only organisation linking schools, universities, students and industry to address Electronics skills. This means that UKSEF will be able to build on these relationships to help deliver the Academy. UKSEF’s proposal aims to address this shortage of chip designers and the associated practical skills ‘gap’.  

Universities ensure graduates have the underpinning knowledge and theoretical understanding, however there will always be a gap between the output of higher education and the expectations of a specific sector such as IC design. Therefore, UKSEF proposes an industry-led initiative to create a formal Chip Design Academy to provide a coherent and focused way of closing the skills gap for newly graduated IC designers.  

How would it work?  The Chip Design Academy will be a collaboration between universities, UKESF and industry to ensure employers’ needs are met and expert insight and support is provided by experienced practitioners.   

The proposal is supported by leading universities, including Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester, Glasgow, and Southampton.   

The Academy would deliver practical training alongside a range of other interventions, focussed on sharing the tools and techniques required for real-world chip design and providing the opportunity for each student to design their own chip for fabrication and test. Leveraging Pragmatic’s globally unique semiconductor technology would facilitate extremely low-cost tape outs and rapid turnaround from tape out to fabricated circuits in a matter of days.  Therefore, students will be able to watch the chip fabrication process live. This will help de-mystify the design-to-manufacturing process and, thereby, inspire more undergraduates to focus on chip design. 

For the initial proof-of-concept pilot project, UKSEF is proposing three cohorts of 20 students each, selected from students at our partner universities who have an interest in learning more about the chip design and fabrication process.  The Academy would run chip design courses during university vacations. After completion of the course, students will be offered a work placement with a UK chip design company to further embed the skills an understanding about the chip design process. 

Our wider ambition for the Chip Design Academy is to broaden awareness across the education sector and make semiconductor design as easily accessible as software coding.  

The journey towards a UK with ample semiconductor chip design talent will be a long one, however UKSEF’s Chip Design Academy will no doubt accelerate this process. 

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Stewart Edmonson

CEO, The UK Electronics Skills Foundation