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[Korea Chips Act] New law to fuel chipmakers’ race to acquire 12th graders

An interior view of Samsung Electronics' chip plant in China. (Samsung Electronics)
An interior view of Samsung Electronics' chip plant in China. (Samsung Electronics)
This is the second installment of a two-part series on Korea‘s Chips Act and controversies surrounding a law meant to support the local chip industry amid heated competition around the world. -- Ed.

To tackle a chronic workforce shortage in the domestic chips industry, Korean semiconductor giants Samsung Electronics and SK hynix have been ramping up efforts to acquire talents even before they become an adult.

Under a new law, a Korean equivalent to the CHIPS for America Act, chipmakers are set to expand their financial support for special programs at selected universities that accept 12th graders before and after they take the college entrance exam. The full scholarship program, however, requires teenagers to set their career path even before they enter college, as they are bound to be hired by the companies as soon as he or she earns a bachelor’s degree.

As of 2022, three universities in Korea -- Sungkyunkwan University, Yonsei University and Korea University -- will accept up to 140 new students through the company-sponsored colleges dedicated to chip technologies, including those who take the annual Suneung test.

Samsung Electronics, which designs its own chips and does contract manufacturing, launched programs with Sungkyunkwan in 2006 and Yonsei in 2021. Entrants will be trained to obtain a professional level of expertise in system semiconductors, such as integrated circuit chips, systems on chips, image sensors and other non-memory chips, they say.

SK hynix, a memory chip maker, also signed a similar contract with Korea University to look for fresh talent graduating high school.

Other prestigious schools such as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Pohang University of Science and Technology are set to join the bandwagon starting next year.

The package of a full scholarship and guaranteed employment has drawn explosive interest from teenagers.

To get into the program, however, is like passing through the eye of a needle.

The three semiconductor-related colleges -- Sungkyunkwan University, Yonsei University and Korea University -- in the early decision admission phase this year showed 0.7-7.4 percent acceptance rates for the spring 2022 semester.

The program is highly competitive also because the colleges will accept only a combined 300 students next year.

This appears to be small compared to the state goal to nurture 36,000 employees dedicated to semiconductors over the next 10 years, as stated in the “K-Semiconductor Belt” initiative unveiled in May last year.

Tech titans seek to acquire talents from a very young age given the long time and cost it takes to train a semiconductor expert. On the other hand, these programs are unlikely to be the most optimal path for the companies.

“Companies might feel pressure from the fact that they are spending a considerable amount of money on the programs. These companies usually do not have to, because they can still recruit the nation’s best talents without sponsoring such programs,” said Park Jea-gun, a professor specializing in semiconductors at Hanyang University.

“What‘s more, companies would not welcome the representation of the program in the society. Those aspiring to work at the large corporations might be losing a chance, just because they were not qualified to get accepted to the college with their entrance exam scores.”

The same trend is true for other cutting-edge technologies, not limited to semiconductors. Korea University has teamed up with battery maker LG Energy Solution and Samsung Electronics’ wireless networks division to recruit students. Yonsei University has joined hands with LG Display.

The contract program was drafted by the government to avoid criticism of offering more room for enrollment in universities in Seoul, as opposed to colleges outside the capital. Entrants to the programs would not count when calculating the upper cap in the enrollment numbers of universities in Seoul.

Academic circles here are criticizing the new law, saying the “contract program” is merely a stopgap measure. Instead, they have requested an expansion of existing undergraduate colleges related to semiconductor technologies at the early stage of the bill, only to be denied by regulations to curb Seoul expansion.

These programs will enable “short-term outcomes for legislators and government officials” that came up with the Korean Chips Act, said Han Tae-hee, a semiconductor and display engineering professor at Sungkyunkwan University.

Experts also argue these programs are makeshift measures for the country, adding that alternatives could range from setting up an association of tech companies to give undergraduates greater choice in their future workplace, to having tech companies contract with graduate schools instead of undergraduate colleges. Ultimately, the most desirable option is for prestigious universities to obtain exemptions to regulatory hurdles in expanding college enrollment for specific majors.

“Universities play a crucial role in training semiconductor experts because no other institution can take the place of universities and no one can train themselves to be a semiconductor expert, so Korea needs a more sophisticated approach to allow universities to train more experts,” said Kim Jin-tae, an associate professor of electronics engineering at Konkuk University.

By Son Ji-hyoung (consnow@heraldcorp.com)
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