ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Computer chips are a hard find in pandemic times, but it’s not the materials in short supply — it’s the manpower.
“Silicon is one of the most abundant elements we have on the planet, so we are great from a silicon perspective,” explains Professor of Nanoscale Science Dr. Robert Geer.
“The job skills that are going to be required to advance these industries are in very short supply,” SUNY Polytechnic Institute Acting President Dr. Tod A. Laursen further adds.
Fortunately, SUNY Poly trains bright young minds to work at every level of computer chip development. Innovators like Justin Nahn who says he’s seen how vital his studies are as people start looking closer at what powers their everyday electronics.
“By doing research and developing to make them even better, I feel like I’m ultimately helping the world,” Nhan shares with NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
Nhan says he first became interested in electronics as a child growing up with computer games.
“Every time a new gaming console or laptops would come out, there’s a new chip to make the performance even better. It always interested me because I thought what’s going on? How do they make the chips better?” he explains.
He says he chose to attend SUNY Poly because of the intensely close partnerships with semiconductor fabrication industry leaders like Wolfspeed, IBM, AMAT, and TEL Technology America. Internships coordinated through the school allow the students to work on company projects and real developments in clean rooms on campus. Nhan himself worked on IBM’s development of a groundbreaking computer chip that despite being only about the size of a fingernail, contains 50 billion transistors and has components that are only two nanometers in size.
“One of the processes I ran in the fab actually contributed to that!” Nhan says excitedly. “You never think that when you’re so young you could do that, you know what I mean? And the fact that you could is an amazing feeling and in another way makes me, keeps me motivated to want to study harder.”
“That’s really those ‘aha’ moments when they see that they can add, that they can contribute,” adds Dr. Geer.
Laursen says SUNY Poly enrollment actually grew during the pandemic, in contrast to many other higher learning institutions. He credits the school’s immersive learning techniques.
“We’ve got this very hands-on approach to the education that we deliver, and this has been externally recognized. Whether you’re studying engineering or nursing or nanotechnology, this is not just going to be a theoretical exercise to study with us,” he explains.
Both Laursen and Geer also speak on recent legislation to promote domestic chip developments. Following the national chip shortage and subsequent strain for cars, gaming consoles, and other technologies, Congress this year introduced the CHIPS Act, which would establish incentives for manufacturers to research, develop, and create semiconductors in the U.S.
“We see this as leading to more investment in the field, and more importantly for our students, excellent jobs,” Dr. Geer says. “Of course, because so many chips have moved overseas and we do make some of those most powerful chips in the world here in the U.S., but we need to make more of them. So we need more fabs [fabrication plants], but empty fabs are no good. We need fabs with people in them.”
“I think the international competitiveness speaks for itself. We know the fears that are out there about how we could be overly dependent on other economies if we don’t make those investments,” Dr. Laursen expounds. “However, I think as an educational person what I would emphasize is think about some of these areas where our economies are clearly going. Think about AI or quantum computing, how many experts are there worldwide today? Very few, so as universities we have a lot of work to do.”
They also drive home these jobs are all inclusive and developers can come from anywhere.
“Sixty percent of the people who work [in a chip fab] have a two year degree. Yeah there’s a lot of engineers with a few four year degrees, a few PhD‘s, but these are jobs not just for people who are in school all the time. These are jobs for people coming from anywhere,” says Dr. Greer.
“At the end of the day, technologies advance because of people, not because of stuff,” adds Dr. Laursen.