Next-Gen Engineers Find Career Pathway In Microelectronics

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A partnership among Youngstown State University and area schools is taking the first steps toward developing the future workforce in the manufacturing and programming of microchips.

Assured Digital Microelectronics Education and Training Ecosystem, or Admete, introduces high school students to microelectronics, which is an expanding division of electrical engineering and technology at YSU. Students learn the fundamentals of making and programming microchips used in consumer electronics, as well as sophisticated sensors used by the Department of Defense, says Shawntae Burton, Admete coordinator at YSU.

YSU is one of six institutions in northeastern Ohio to be awarded grant funding in October 2020 through the U.S. Air Force. YSU, Wright State University, Lorain County Community College, the University of Akron, Ohio University and the University of Toledo will share $29.75 million in funding over the course of three years.

The goal is to ensure enough students enter the pipeline for careers in microelectronics by getting them interested while in high school, so they further their education in the participating colleges, eventually building the U.S. workforce, Burton says.

“It’s something that people don’t think about a lot on the onset,” Burton says. “STEM is becoming more palatable in our community. But I don’t know if people know a lot about all of the subfields of engineering and electrical engineering.”

Raising students’ awareness of microelectronics is particularly important given the shortage of microchips in the global market. The shortage has affected everything from cellphones and gaming consoles to the automotive industry, reducing inventory and driving up prices.

It’s also given rise to greater demand for chips from U.S. manufacturers. The New York Times recently reported smaller chip makers that operate in aging factories are now able to command long-term contracts with buyers, allowing them to increase revenue, upgrade equipment and hire more workers.

In the third quarter, global sales of semiconductors surged 27.6% year-over-year to $144.8 billion, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association, a trade group that represents the U.S. semiconductor industry. Sales in the Americas led the way, the association reported, with year-to-year sales increasing 33.5%. That compares to increases of 32.3% in Europe, 27.2% in the Asia Pacific/All Other markets, 24.5% in Japan, and 24% in China.

The problem, Burton says, is there aren’t enough people to work in those factories.

“That’s a big part of this conversation,” she says. “We don’t want to outsource this work, especially for our Department of Defense.”

The Admete program is designed to ensure more homegrown talent is ready to do the work in safe factories and to create products that are viable and ready for the Department of Defense, she says.

YSU has partnered with Boardman High School and Poland Seminary High School to conduct after-school classes where students learn the basics of microelectronics. Using Arduino microcontroller boards, students learn what it’s like to work with a circuit board and gain an understanding of circuits and current, Burton says.

As many as 26 students participate in the classes taught by YSU graduate engineering students: Muneer Barnawi, Raymond “RJ” Yarwood, João Garretto and Kristen Grunden.

On this day, students were learning how to build and program an Arduino board to replicate the function of a traffic light. Using a collection of wires, LED lights and other components, the students assemble the boards, then connect them to their laptops to write code for the program.

Taylor Greenaway, a senior at Boardman, took an earlier coding class. She was familiar with that work. But she never had to wire anything before taking the Admete class.

“I guess that would be the hardest aspect of it,” Greenaway says. “But through the graduate students helping us through all the colors, it’s gone well.”

Greenaway enrolled in the class to learn more about the various aspects of engineering, particularly electrical engineering, which she hopes to pursue in college. She is unsure what her dream job would be, but is interested in chemical engineering and biomedical engineering.

“This has definitely been the most helpful thing in helping me choose,” she says. “I take an engineering class here – 3D printing engineering – but this is very involved with electrical.”

Greenaway’s classmate Vincent Dong, a junior, is interested in pursuing biomedical engineering in college. The microelectronics class has had “a steep learning curve. But once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy,” he says.

Skills gained in class will aid him in following his career path, he says. “It’s a good way of learning about engineering in a fun and easy way,” Dong says.

Regarding jobs, Burton sees “high demand across the board for this type of work. The College of STEM at YSU has a co-op internship department that places students from the Admete program into various learning opportunities. “They can get their feet wet and get some experience before they enter the workforce,” she says.

Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show job growth for electrical and electronics engineers will be 7% from now through 2030. In 2020, the median pay was $103,390.

“Their salaries are very competitive,” Burton says. “It depends on which area of microelectronics that they want to focus on. But I would say we’re looking at six-figure salaries.”

The partnership with YSU takes STEM education at Boardman High School to the next level, says its principal, Mark Zura.

“It adds an additional layer to what we’re traditionally doing in STEM with a heavy emphasis on microchip and electrical engineering, which is a very lucrative field and very important for the area,” Zura says.

For students unsure what career they want to pursue, the program gives them a clear pathway from high school to college to career, he says.

“To be able to target that interest early and to make them aware that these opportunities are out there and important for our region, that’s critical,” Zura says.

Indeed, as the area becomes synonymous with terms such as Tech Belt and Voltage Valley, programs like Admete create a way to engage with that future workforce, Burton says.

“It is incredibly important to get ahead of the game and to introduce students to microelectronics within electrical engineering and electrical engineering technology at Youngstown State University. It gives them a sure pathway to academic and financial success,” she says.

Pictured at top: Students Taylor Greenaway and Vincent Dong show their traffic light projects.