China’s Chip School teaches the ways of Huawei and its talent-hungry peers

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NANJING, China – Chinese government on mission to fill shortfall of hundreds of thousands of semiconductor engineers as country builds voracious appetite for chips and parts with United States

Globally, the tech industry faces a shortage of microchips that power everything from smartphones and headphones to car sensors. There is also a lack of skilled talent to produce them, especially in China, which consumes around a quarter of global production.

A Chinese government study released in April found that 230,000 more engineers would be needed by 2022 to meet demand, in addition to the 511,900 employees in the semiconductor industry in 2019.

One answer, authorities hope, can be found about 1,000 km south of Beijing.

Last October, a professional institute called Nanjing IC Training Base opened in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. It is sponsored by the administrator of Nanjing Jiangbei New Zone, a nationwide innovation pilot zone. The training center is part of a government campaign to convert an area of ​​788 km² – slightly larger than Singapore – into an “integrated circuit city”.

The opening of the training center came as tensions mounted with the United States, which has used export sanctions to deny China access to some of the most advanced technologies.

“We are exploring how to integrate microchip production and education to meet industry needs,” Lu Huijun, deputy director of the center, told Nikkei Asia.

The center was originally known as Nanjing Integrated Circuit University. The name was changed in May to “training base” to better reflect its functions and avoid misunderstandings, according to Lu, because it was not an institution accredited by the Ministry of Education.

So far, the center has provided vocational training to more than 3,000 postgraduate and postgraduate students who already have basic knowledge of semiconductors. Its programs include courses, workshops and project training, lasting from one week to six months.

Lu called the center of recalibration of the mainstream education system, where engineering schools produce graduates who may not match the real needs of the industry.

The Nanjing IC Training Base opened last October as part of a government campaign to turn an area slightly larger than Singapore into an “integrated circuit city.” (Photo by CK Tan)

One way to avoid such mismatches is to work with business. Partners at the center include national telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies. Despite the technological frictions, another is US-based Synopsys, a leader in electronic design automation (EDA) for microchips that is expected to help raise the standards of Chinese industry.

The center draws on the resources of its partners, including practicing engineers who serve as tutors and shared labs in the now 6-year-old IC City, where more than 500 industry players are located. In May, the center signed agreements with 10 semiconductor companies to access their laboratories.

“Not all higher education institutions are equipped with good learning facilities because they are not cheap,” Lu said.

The collaboration provides students with hands-on work and production experience, from software-driven design to manufacturing, testing and applications. The courses developed with the partners include artificial intelligence and EDA.

Cloud computing courses are based on Huawei’s Kunpeng hardware and software. Students become familiar with the architecture, specifications and uses of the Kunpeng processor, knowledge considered essential for programmers.

Zhang Tianyu, general manager of Huawei in Jiangsu, said software developers play a crucial role in basic research, addressing industry shortcomings and boosting innovation. “We will create an environment for developers based on the latest innovative platforms to support talent development,” he promised.

Students taking courses at the center should have better employment prospects. “Potential employers are happy to know that they are recruiting qualified candidates,” Lu said.

“What I learn at the training base is more practical than university courses, which allows me to apply the lessons to my future work more quickly,” said Lu Hanqing, a student at the University of Science and Technology. of Nanjing Information.

A Huawei Kunpeng chipset: Students from the Nanjing center learn about the architecture, specifications and uses of the Kunpeng processor. © Reuters

China is counting on the center and on IC City at large to achieve breakthroughs in “bottleneck” industries where the United States is putting pressure and Beijing wants self-sufficiency: semiconductors, 5G, genetics, etc. .

Over the next five years, China’s share of global chip consumption is expected to exceed that of the rest of the world by 4 to 5 percentage points on average across most categories of electronic devices, according to a joint Boston study. Consulting Group and Semiconductor. Industry Association, an American trade group, in April.

But China lags the West in advanced semiconductor technologies, and some of its companies want to close the gap by hiring engineers from elsewhere.

In May, the government added 12 new tech schools at top higher education institutions across the country to further accelerate talent development. . . . The country had 215 higher education institutions offering specialized courses in AI in 2020, according to a report from Tsinghua University.

The Nanjing Center’s emphasis on practical knowledge, in particular, is seen as a step in the right direction, if not a complete solution. “It can fill the skills gap, but it cannot in any way train talents that meet 100% of each company’s requirements, because every company’s business process is different,” said Joseph Ng, a certified trainer in Huawei network products in Malaysia.

Still, the center is determined to help the cause of China. “Through the development of talents who form the ecosystem to match supply and demand, we can improve the competitiveness of China’s integrated circuit production,” said Deputy Director Lu.


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