Depending on the source, Europe is estimated to have between sixty thousand to a few hundred thousand job vacancies in the ICT/electronics sector, and many remain unfulfilled. At the same time, some media sources are reporting that countries like India, which are known to international talent recruiters as talent pools, are starting to eye regions like Europe to fill in the considerable gaps in their technology and startup ecosystems. It’s clear that the war for talent is far from over and that it’s perhaps more global than ever. Many employers are experiencing challenges attracting suitable profiles these days, and it’s no different at imec. With an overall global workforce of close to 5,000 people, imec has already filled over 400 vacancies since the beginning of 2022 and continues averaging close to 300 open positions. While traditional approaches, such as internal mobility and inflow from local universities and educational institutes, can cover a considerable part of the distance, organizations need more diversified efforts to close the gap entirely. Imec believes that to be successful, collaborative orchestrated efforts are needed and can be a key differentiator for Europe on a global scale.
Collaborative orchestrated efforts are needed and can be a key differentiator for Europe on a global scale.
Put the employee at the center of your ecosystem
A popular quote believed to date back to Henry Ford states that, “the only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave, is not training them, and having them stay.” While this statement holds much truth, organizations can and should go beyond investments in training. Attractive employers create value for their employees from within their entire internal and external ecosystems to ensure their talent can work in the best conditions and are supported in their growth. At imec, for example, aside from conventional online and classroom-style training modules, a substantial part of learning happens through daily interactions with colleagues and peers. Imec’s culturally diverse population comprises 95 nationalities, creating the culture and opportunity to learn from many different perspectives. This open and creative environment means all levels of the organization and beyond have daily interactions: PhDs, senior researchers, operators, resident researchers from academic and industry partners, and many others. Through imec’s academic and industry partners, an external ecosystem is available that further enables our talent to find their optimal career path. A bright mind that concludes their Ph.D. at imec might very well end up in Austria designing chips for relevant applications. Many organizations understand the value of being part of a larger ecosystem, which is one reason they tend to cluster in high-tech and innovation parks and campuses. Yet, openness towards external mobility is more common at universities where there’s a natural outflow of talent—a practice that more employers could embrace.
Many organizations understand the value of being part of a larger ecosystem.
Another aspect that often pops up when putting the employee first is reskilling. One example of reskilling highlighted in the Oct 2016 Harvard Business Review is the reskilling program of AT&T in the US. At the beginning of this century, the Dallas-based telecom giant faced a rapidly changing market, which evolved from wired to wireless and from analog to digital. Shy of people with the right skills for these newly emerging technologies, AT&T also had to deal with a multitude of its close to 300,000 employees whose skills risked becoming redundant. Asking themselves ‘where they would find the necessary number of candidates with the correct skills for its future business,’ AT&T management realized that ‘maybe they already work for us.’ Which resulted in a massive, multi-year campaign to reskill substantial parts of its workforce.
Another example of reskilling in the US, also called upskilling, are programs designed to introduce army veterans into various non-military sectors of the labor market. On a much smaller scale, one example at imec is imec school, a program in which imec recruits and trains people for technical positions in cleanrooms, not based on their educational or professional background but on their curiosity about technology and their ability to learn.
All these examples have in common that they directly tap into the ecosystems within and surrounding a given organization. What if we could make these dynamics surpass the individual company and implement them across the European Union?
Collaboration as a common denominator and USP for Europe
Through the European Chips Act, the EU is explicit in its aim to become competitive and resilient toward the availability of advanced semiconductor technologies. As a subsection of one of the chapters, the Chips Act defines the ambition of investing in competence centers and skills development. An important first step in the implementation thereof is the participation of the microelectronics sector in the recently launched European Pact for Skills initiative that runs across many sectors. Endorsed by a large and diverse set of partners from industry, R&D hubs, education providers, and NGOs, the semiconductor consortium within the Pact for Skills has given itself the goal to support strategic industrial ecosystems in setting up partnerships for upskilling, reskilling, the attraction of “young talent,” and to unlock European, national and regional funding. In total, it hopes to secure up to two billion euro of funding to invest in these ambitions.
A vital force behind this participation comes from the European Erasmus+ project METIS (MicroElectronics Training, Industry and Skills), a noteworthy example of an international collaboration to strengthen Europe’s position in the global war for talent. The consortium implements a new strategic approach to sectoral cooperation on skills for microelectronics. It is coordinated by SEMI Europe and can rely on approximately twenty key partners representing industry (start-ups, SMEs, large firms), national and EU industry associations, formal educational providers, and regulatory bodies in accreditation and certification.
The semiconductor consortium within the Pact for Skills has given itself the goal to support strategic industrial ecosystems in setting up partnerships for upskilling, reskilling, the attraction of “young talent,” and to unlock European, national and regional funding.
As a third concrete case, one could name the EU SPEAR project. It’s a good example of the International Training Networks (ITN) that exist in various disciplines. Funded by Europe’s Horizon 2020 program, SPEAR develops and rolls out quality training for young researchers in the emerging field of spin-orbit materials, emergent phenomena, and related technologies. Through the recruitment and training of 15 PhDs, the international consortium ensures that fundamental research on newly discovered scientific phenomena is strengthened and that it is tuned to the industrial applications that these phenomena can potentially enable (also see the highlighted case at the bottom of this article, “Through EU SPEAR project, imec offers training on SOT-MRAM: emerging memory for microcontrollers and embedded systems”).
These and other examples illustrate the potential of the European technology sector to act in an orchestrated way and at the supra-national level in tackling several human-resource challenges it faces.
The million-dollar question: can we make it happen?
The good news is that the European technology ecosystem and policymakers agree on many of the above topics and ambitions. But the million-dollar question remains whether we can make it happen, and what incentives companies, organizations and local and national public bodies will need to make a truly unified and orchestrated stand on the global stage. Can we reach beyond our local and national allegiances and also embrace a supranational approach? One that builds on the many initiatives already in place and under a unifying European purpose, say ‘for the good of society’?
Want to know more?
- Webpage of the Pact for Skills initiative, with the participation of the semiconductor/microelectronics sector: Pact for Skills - Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion - European Commission (europa.eu).
- Homepage of the Erasmus+ METIS project: Metis – Metis4Skills.
- Homepage of the EU H2020 SPEAR project: SPEAR ITN – Spin-orbit materials, emergent phenomena and related technologies training (spear-itn.eu).
Through the EU SPEAR project, imec offers training on SOT-MRAM: emerging memory for microcontrollers and embedded systems
From October 3 to 5, imec organized a training on SOT-MRAM technology for memory, from fundamentals to materials to integration and circuit design challenges. Set up in the framework of the EU-funded SPEAR project and supported by imec academy, the content is relevant for any profile that relates to magnetics, emerging memories, and magnetic memories in general, and is relevant for master-level students up to trained experts that want deep insight in upcoming technologies.
These trainings are important because fundamental knowledge of the physics and scientific phenomena behind SOT-MRAM has only been relatively recently discovered while it’s already at the basis of more applied R&D towards specific implementations in semiconductor memories. More precisely, the first papers on the fundamentals behind SOT-MRAM only date back to around 2012 and it is already considered one of the most promising candidates for future generations of memory in microcontrollers and embedded devices. The SPEAR project is an example of the type of initiatives that can ensure sufficient effort is put into furthering the fundamental knowledge about relatively young scientific topics while ensuring that the explorations align with the needs of the already ongoing industrial R&D.
Best practice for EU Chips Act
Within SPEAR, 15 PhDs have been selected and recruited on a variety of emerging technologies, two of which are being hosted by imec on the topic of SOT-MRAM. For these 15 high potentials, a dedicated development trajectory is being designed with a combination of trainings on technical topics and on other relevant skills. The technical trainings are being opened for a wider audience. The current training is the second out of five and can count on the support of imec academy for the organization of the training and in the capitalization for later use in similar contexts. It is a concrete illustration of some elements of the skills-development strategy put forward by the EU Chips Act. Within this European context, several emerging technologies are being considered important differentiators in the aim for an increased global competitiveness. In the case of memory technologies, each of Europe’s three main Research and Technology Organizations (RTO) has chosen a specific emerging technology to focus on. For Fraunhofer, this is ferroelectric RAM, for CEA-LETI it is phase-change memory and imec focuses on MRAM. It's a great example of how teaming up at the European level can allow us to share tasks and make progress on multiple levels by optimally leveraging each other’s knowledge and capabilities.
The potential of SOT-MRAM
The biggest added value and application potential of SOT-MRAM is believed to be situated in the domain of microcontrollers and embedded systems, and more specifically, for technology nodes of 14nm and beyond.
Up until the 28nm node, the needs for non-volatile memories in this market was largely catered to a specific flavor of NAND Flash memory. Yet, the heterogeneous processing that was needed to integrate this working memory on top of logic became too complex and unsustainable in terms of cost. New non-volatile memory concepts such as resistive memory, phase-change memory and STT MRAM, therefore came around the corner because of their more compatible process flow. With the first two proving their value in the 22 and 18nm nodes, STT MRAM is currently the one of these few candidates that made it into the 14nm production node. Partly because MRAM can be switched through advanced transistors (operating at 0,7V and below), while other emerging memory technologies would need a specific transistor to provide a higher voltage.
SOT-MRAM differentiates itself by its fast-switching potential. This would allow it to match the clock speeds of the CPU on top of which it is being embedded and even to take on the additional role of working memory.
Within the MRAM domain, STT is proving its value in current technology nodes, but has some intrinsic characteristics that prevent it from being used as a real cache memory. For example, it is a two-pillar device that achieves switching by passing a high current through very thin dielectric layers, limiting its endurance. Here, SOT-MRAM holds the advantage for future technology nodes. Being a three-terminal device, it decouples the read and write paths and thereby avoids large currents running through critical layers. Other than STT, this allows SOT to reach the theoretically feasible switching speeds of MRAM. For completeness, it must be stated that SOT MRAM is somewhat bulkier compared to STT-MRAM devices and therefore introduces another specific set of challenges in terms of density and footprint. But for the long-term scaling, it is by far the best candidate. Initiatives like the training within the EU-SPEAR project are therefore invaluable for the long-term future of the entire domain of embedded systems.
A sense of purpose and the attractiveness of technology and engineering
Beyond the challenges of post-graduate training and development, let’s look at the broader context. One of the basics we should address is the attractiveness of the sector and its jobs. Imec observes that even for senior-level talent, an increasingly dominant aspect in their choice of employer is the type of challenge being offered and how it can make a real difference in a societally relevant domain. It’s essential to prove to candidates at all seniority levels that they are considering employment with an organization where there is a guaranteed transfer of the fruits of their labor into impactful domains and applications. This proof starts well before convincing talents to work for us. It starts at the very moment they begin to have a conscious life and throughout their upbringing and education.
How attractive are we making science and technology jobs, and where can we improve?
The resulting question therefore is: how attractive are we making science and technology jobs, and where can we improve? Ask any ten-year-old what a teacher, doctor, or firefighter does, and you will likely get an inspired and educated answer. Ask the same ten-year-old what an engineer or physicist does, and the replies might become less predictable. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s clear that all future initiatives promoting STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) should be warmly welcomed and applauded. At imec, one of the most prominent activities at this level is the RVO-Society, founded in 2001 to honor imec’s founder, professor, and baron, Roger Van Overstraeten. Over the years, the RVO Society has educated and inspired thousands of youngsters and teachers. Now it gives shape to Scivil, a knowledge center for citizen science, and Brightlab, a laboratory for STEM education. A noteworthy example from Germany is Invent a Chip, a competition that allows high-school pupils to submit their purposeful invention or technology solution and that awards several of them with the support needed to build it. Started as a regional initiative by a motivated professor at Hannover University, it has, throughout more than twenty editions, grown into a renowned national competition backed by a variety of stakeholders from government, academia, and industry.
We can debate what images would appeal most: doctors, teachers, and firefighters being enabled by advanced technologies or spacy cleanroom suits and silicon wafers?
A recurring element in these and other initiatives is the sense of purpose that drives our sector forward and which can hardly be overestimated as an attraction pole for talents from all ages, backgrounds, and genders. This sense of purpose is abundantly available in science and tech. Aside from a healthy dose of technology skepticism to keep the sector grounded, no one can argue that science and technology contribute substantially to solving the grand challenges of our times; and have the potential to do so even more. Not surprisingly, imec’s slogan is ‘embracing a better life.’ As a sector, we can debate what images and storytelling would appeal most to the talents we hope to attract: doctors, teachers, and firefighters being enabled by all kinds of advanced technologies or spacy cleanroom suits and silicon wafers?
And do not underestimate the role that popular media can play in this. In Belgium and other countries, we have inspiring and well-spoken scientists and geeks featured in various TV shows to educate and entertain with science experiments and trivia. It has also been widely studied how TV series like CSI and others boosted the number and popularity of criminology courses in terms of numbers and the diversity of their student populations.
Jo De Boeck received his Engineering degree in 1986 and his PhD in 1991 (University of Leuven). He joined imec in 1991. As a researcher, he led a.o. the integration of novel materials at a device level.
In 2013, Jo became vice president of imec’s Microsystems division. After that, he headed imec The Netherlands and – later – the Smart Systems & Energy Technology Unit. In 2011, he was appointed Chief Technology Officer; in 2018 he became imec’s Chief Strategy Officer.
Jo is part-time professor at the Engineering department of the KU Leuven and held a visiting professorship at the TU Delft (2003–2016). He is a member of imec’s Executive Board.
22 September 2022