Time to Make Tech Cool

Author : Dave Paloian, Academic Program Manager at Microchip

11 November 2023

The semiconductor industry needs many more engineers from the next generation to tackle an acute and growing skills gap. This article outlines one way that’s already working and makes clear there are many more opportunities.

Professions facing skills shortages and a lack of new entrants are trying various ways to make their careers more appealing to young people. Unsurprisingly, some struggle to make their work look exciting. Engineering, and embedded electronics in particular, need not have that problem. The products and the work that goes into them are cool. We just have to find better ways of showing them that. 

Many would-be future engineers are lost due to insufficient understanding of what engineering really is. And many of those could be saved for engineering if they only understood how cool it really is. It’s not as hard as we might think. With a little nudge in the right direction, engineering could sell itself to the new generation. I think the solution is to be found within the problem.

The problem is one of both supply and demand. We’ve long been familiar with a lack of qualified engineers coming out of university and into industry in Europe and the Americas. It’s been less critical in Asia, but becoming more of a challenge. The supply problem is in the pipeline: too few school kids choose engineering in the first place. But how can they pursue a career they don’t even know exists?

Lack of awareness in schools
There was an interesting industry study several years ago with some careers advisors in US schools. Most high schools have someone that helps advise pupils on careers based on their aptitudes, sometimes determined by aptitude tests. The researchers created profiles of pupils that would be ideal for electrical or electronic engineering, gave them to the advisors and the advisors admitted they would have pointed such pupils towards science or even law, but not engineering. Pupils just aren’t being encouraged into engineering. 

The awareness has been better. In the early days of computing there was a buzz about the coming information revolution. The public at least knew what a computer was and it had a sense of what skills would be in demand and the sort of new jobs being created. That’s now well established since almost everyone has a personal computer in their home, they have a pretty solid understanding about what it is, what it does and maybe even a vague idea of how. But what most people don’t grasp is how many more computers there are in their homes or on their persons. What they don’t understand, and what Microchip develops, is the embedded system or embedded computing hardware with microcontroller units (MCUs) and everything that goes around it to make electronics work. However, MCUs are not used in a general fashion like in a PC, but have a specific function, for example, controlling a microwave oven or a thermostat. In fact, microcontrollers are everywhere and in everything. The embedded electronics industry has been growing fast and that rising demand is putting even more pressure on the already short supply of engineers. But the answer to the supply problem could lie in that higher demand. 

Most students aren’t aware of the brilliant career opportunities this is creating. The number of jobs required to keep up with the expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) alone is going to be exponential. But the very fact that embedded electronics touches every corner of life, means that it’s getting into some cool stuff, which could be useful in converting young people. 

Students love playing their game consoles for hours on end, or love their gym shoes that report their steps or heart rate. But they don’t think about what it took to design these products, build them or how that is a great career for someone to have. Young people need to be taught to be inquisitive about the things around them. When they fly a drone, for example, they should be wondering what it takes to make it work, who built it and how many people that involved, what they did and what kind of skills they needed. 

Taking the initiative 
Dean Kamen, the entrepreneur with inventions ranging from insulin pumps to the two-wheeled Segway, founded For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) back in 1989. The objective of this was to make science and technology exciting and inspiring for the next generation. It reached 534,000+ young people in the 2021-2022 season and a total of more than 2.5 million since its inception. The students in the program are between 6-18 years old in 113 countries around the world. There’s also $80 million in scholarships from over 200 colleges, universities and corporations. He saw the lack of young people going into engineering as a cultural problem - the culture gets what it celebrates and if that’s music, movies or sport, then they tend to be the careers young people will go after. 

Kamen started FIRST Robotics as a high energy, glamorous program of events with amazing lighting, DJs and so on to make it more like a sporting event. The schools that have robotics teams treat them like a sports team. FIRST Robotics is sometimes called ‘The Ultimate Sport for the Mind’ and Microchip is an organising sponsor in Arizona, and elsewhere. The cornerstone of the FIRST Robotics Competition is that it groups industry mentors with the students. This provides the students first hand opportunity to see engineers and the engineering process in action. As a FIRST mentor for over 20 years, I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this approach for instilling a very tangible understanding of what a career in engineering would entail.

Microchip supports FIRST through its non-profit arm AZFirst, founded by Microchip’s Executive Chair Steve Sanghi 20 years ago. AZFirst helps to provide opportunity, education and funding to technology, arts and engineering minded youth, mentors, and supporters through robotics-based programs. The other program it supports is VEX (through the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation).  

In Arizona, where we are headquartered, we’ve hosted FIRST and VEX robotics competitions and support teams worldwide. We’ve provided scholarships, funding, volunteers, mentors and equipment for school and college programs, as well as sponsoring events. We’ve also created connections with colleges and universities to generate a pipeline of engineers into the workforce. Last season we saw over 78,000 middle/high school pupils and college students through these robotics programs. Around 80% of participants go on to pursue STEM degrees. 

Robotics could be just the start. The range of applications in embedded systems is much wider than general computing and offer so many more opportunities to inspire the next generation.

Kids have always loved speed, whether it’s trains, planes or automobiles. Today’s car has over 400 MCUs in it, and each and every one has to be designed in and programmed. Like games? Beyond the game itself, there’s the VR goggles, the sensory feedback or haptic controllers. Then there’s electric scooters, fitness gear, wearables - the list is almost endless. If children have used some of these gadgets, perhaps they think they could improve upon them? So why not become an engineer and do so?

Want to make the world a better place in even more important ways? Teaching about world problems on the scale of climate change, hunger and disease now starts in primary schools. Learn electrical, electronic or software engineering, and when you graduate you can apply those skills to a wide variety of problems, markets and applications. Interested in climate change? How about remote atmospheric sensing? Want to get into medicine? There’s personal diagnostics, virtual doctors and so many more possibilities.

These gadgets define young people’s lives now and they could redesign those or innovate with new ones. Let young people know they can build the world they want with engineering. 

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