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[Editorial] Cultivating chip industry

Government should expand admissions for chip majors, beef up rules against leaking tech

The South Korean government plans to nurture more than 3,000 skilled experts for the semiconductor industry by 2027, the Ministry of Science and ICT said Monday, a move that follows the high-profile visit of US President Joe Biden to a Samsung Electronics facility amid the global shortage of chips.

The announcement of the plan itself is timely for the domestic semiconductor industry, which is home to the world’s biggest memory chipmaker Samsung and the second-largest DRAM supplier SK hynix.

Both top-rated chipmakers are scrambling to recruit new talent and retain their top engineers at a time when corporate espionage for chip-related trade secrets is intensifying among key players from Taiwan, China and the United States.

But the scope of the expansion programs to nurture chip engineers is seriously limited. So is the absence of regulatory changes to stave off corporate espionage to protect local chipmakers against a fierce attempt to poach Korean chip experts.

As for the limited scope, the immediate target of increased chip majors is too small. For instance, under the newly unveiled government plan, new departments of semiconductor studies will be set up at four research institutions: the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology and the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology. But this will only add to some 200 new skilled experts in the field per year.

Korea produces some 650 semiconductor majors every year, falling far short of the 1,500 new graduates the domestic industry needs annually to stay competitive.

South Korea’s educational institutions are producing a combined total of about 220 masters and doctorate holders specializing in semiconductor technology per year, which is far from sufficient for the fast-paced global competition for advanced chip developments.

The shortage of chips and related engineers is not limited to South Korea. Taiwan, home to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., increased the number of students at semiconductor studies departments last year. The move was part of state-led efforts to support TSMC, the world’s largest contract chipmaker that controls 90 percent of the market for advanced types of semiconductors. Japan set up a new five-year academic institution that combines high school and specialized college programs devoted to semiconductor technology and nurturing future chip experts.

The country apparently needs more chip engineers, supported by educational and industrial training programs. The chronic shortage is not a new problem. Previous attempts, however, have not worked. A case in point is the abortive plan that the former Moon Jae-in administration introduced early this year. The original plan was to produce 30,000 engineers over the next 10 years. The key was to relax restrictions on the number of college admissions for related departments. Unfortunately, the expansion plan broke down at the National Assembly due to existing regulations.

President Yoon Suk-yeol similarly announced that he would nurture 100,000 chip experts as an election pledge. Yoon’s appointment of Lee Jong-ho as science and ICT minister is part of the broader strategy to boost the chip industry further. Lee has made a name for himself in semiconductor development by producing a number of patents.

To pull off the lofty plans of cultivating over 3,000 skilled workers in the semiconductor industry, the government should work hard to lift restrictions on the number of chip major admissions at colleges in the metropolitan and surrounding regions.

In addition, the Yoon government should push for beefing up regulations on corporate espionage by amending related laws together with the National Assembly. As demonstrated by US President Biden’s visit to Samsung’s chip facility in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, chip technology will become increasingly important -- a good reason for South Korea to take bold steps to stay ahead.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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