Wanted: IT engineering expertsThe Korean economy is muddling along dangerously led entirely by external demand in semiconductors. In a monthly economic report released last week, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance said exports maintained “robust” growth although external uncertainties were growing. Semiconductor exports in September jumped 28.3 percent against a year ago and also reached record highs in daily volume.
The world’s biggest chipmaker Samsung Electronics logged 17.5 trillion won ($15.5 billion) in operating profit for the third quarter. Semiconductors took up 21.2 percent of total Korean outbound shipments and the category was responsible for 37 percent of the combined operating profit of Kospi-listed companies in the first half. If semiconductors shake, so will the stock market, exports and the Korean economy.
With murky prospects about how long the boom in semiconductors will last, China is fast ascending in semiconductor capacity. Korean products must hold a comfortable lead over the latecomer to ensure its leadership. But the human resource pool in semiconductors is dangerously thin. According to a JoongAng Ilbo study, masters and doctor’s degree holders specializing in semiconductors at Seoul National University were reduced to 43 last year from 97 ten years ago. The phenomenon is similar at other schools. Despite the industry’s boom, companies are short of manpower. This shortage is more severe in the supply chain of equipment, parts and materials.
The equipment and materials sector is in dire need of funding to feed the semiconductor habitat. Large companies alone do not lead the chip habitat. The sector also must balance the memory-dominant field with the non-memory sector. Large companies can be responsible for mass-produced memory chips, but smaller players are more apt for customized non-memory sectors.
The semiconductor is not the only area lacking manpower. Global companies are in a hunt for talents on AI. Companies like Samsung Electronics and Naver attend international science conferences in search of talent they can recruit. Korea alone will be nearly 10,000 AI software engineers short over the next five years. The government and industry must work together to strengthen the pool of experts in semiconductors, AI and other IT industries. Universities must work harder to attract young elites to engineering science.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 16, Page 30