Educating Korea’s chip army

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Educating Korea’s chip army

Park Sang-ook
The author is a professor of science and technology studies at Seoul National University.

Universities outside the capital region have been battling over higher enrollment in semiconductor departments. The education minister post, which should referee these conflicts, has been vacant for more than a month. In the meantime, the United States has been legislating mandates requiring the sourcing of chips, electric vehicles (EVs), batteries and bio products in America to ensure a U.S.-led supply chain. A chip shortage in the wake of the pandemic, production disruptions from Japan’s curbs on exports of key materials for wafer processing and the U.S. initiative for an alliance among Asian chipmakers have become hot potatoes.

EVs and batteries are Korea’s strategic technologies, not to mention biopharmaceuticals. Without distinctive strength, any one of them could fall flat. Technology can be developed and bought. The key to strategic technology is to have an unrivalled edge. In key industries, it is important to have proprietary technologies. Nationalism and self-sufficiency in technology could be an outdated concept, but self-defense has become inevitable amid the mounting protectionist wave.

It is a delusion to think we can hide a secret weapon in technology. One genius feeding one million people is a myth too. Modern science and technology research and development are systematic and collective activities. Instead of a brilliant brain, 1,000 devoted workers and 10,000 engineers are needed.

An innovation can be developed by another with R&D and money. Instead of secretly working to defend technology, it is better to work harder and faster as one can easily be overtaken in the technology race.
Workers inspect production lines at the Samsung Electronics Pyeongtaek Campus. Rep. Yang Hyang-ja, a former executive of the electronics company, blames Korean society’s ignorance of the increasing avoidance of science and engineering departments for a critical lack of manpower in the semiconductor industry in Korea. [YONHAP]

The keystone is perfection in innovation, R&D investment and talent. Korea’s innovation system is already the world’s best. The European Union benchmarks Korea’s model although the country is a non-member. Korea tops Bloomberg’s innovation list. Private innovation led by large companies has been active. The country is rich in intellectual property rights, and industry-academy-research collaboration is robust. Japan has come to envy Korea’s advances in high technology, and Germany also is awed by Korea’s vitality and ICT strengths.

Korea ranks No. 5 in R&D spending after the United States, China, Japan and Germany. Its R&D investment-to-GDP ratio is No. 1 among OECD members. Korea could be seen on par with Israel given the country being a part of U.S. national innovation system. In a nutshell, Korea has matured the system. We are just short of science and tech talent.

I recently attended a lecture by Rep. Yang Hyang-ja, who heads the Chip Industry Special Committee in the National Assembly. The Samsung-Electronics-executive-turned lawmaker is a rare tech expert in the legislature. She talked about the K-Chips Act to sustain chip supremacy. But what caught my attention was her comment on the critical shortage of manpower in the chip industry.

She claimed that the shunning of science and engineering departments by students has been an issue since the early 2000s, but because it had been neglected, the chip industry today is now short of manpower. We are now excited about creating semiconductor departments and increasing quotas because society has long neglected the shunning of science and engineering studies.

While taking a masters course in electrochemistry in 2002, I started an online science and tech group among youths for policy study to promote more attention to science and tech studies. If bright students are avoiding science and engineering majors, it may be due to poor rewards in the field of work after hard studies. The youthful activist has become a grayed science professor, but avoidance of math, science, engineering and technology studies remains unresolved and caused a shortage of manpower in strategic technologies.

For aspirants to science and technology policy studies, I advise them to devote themselves to research on science and technology manpower policy. The quality of labor is as important as quantity. Breeding talent in science and technology requires decades. Since it is hard to predict which industry needs what capabilities, a mismatch between supply and demand — and among capabilities — is unavoidable. The problem related to labor power is complex and difficult. There is no depth in current policy on nurturing manpower in chips except increasing the quota in departments.

There are many reasons why young people shun science and tech studies and jobs in manufacturing. Difficult studies, harshness of the work, low salaries, work in regional locations and rigid work cultures can be some of the reasons. But if a bright future is guaranteed, immediate challenges can be endured. Most young people believe that as Korea’s manufacturing capacity is at its peak, it will go downhill in the future. They do not wish to stake their futures on industries and work with waning prospects. The warnings about crisis from experts and the media are only scaring them to leave the field.

R&D workforces are bred in laboratories not in lecture rooms. Unseen lab research and experiments can nurture the workforce. To promote an R&D workforce in semiconductors, there must be support for graduate schools of science and engineering. Over the years, government R&D support for the chip sector has been cut sharply. The government reasoned that the sector no longer needs big support as Korea has already reached the top in chipmaking and that the private sector is competent in the field.

It is true that government R&D spending should go to future technologies the private sector cannot easily invest in due to high risk. But that theory could stand before technology became synonymous with security and strategic asset to defend sovereignty. Universities should be in charge of training the masses, and post-graduate courses in graduate school labs should be expanded for research activities to generate elites with postgraduate and doctorate degrees.

The building up of chip departments and research cannot immediately generate the manpower needed in the chip sector, as a chip department recruiting students this year will produce graduates four and half years later. Postgraduates take even longer. Present shortages must be covered with the existing labor pool. Students in related majors should be directed toward retraining, and talent lost overseas should be called back. Foreign talent should be invited. Companies in need must offer radical incentives to draw talent from overseas. The government should give support if necessary. The migrant labor policy must shift from low skilled to high-tech.

Chinese students are the lion’s share of foreign students in science and tech. For strategic technologies, the ongoing realignment of global supply chains and the science and tech alliance must be considered. The country must be more proactive in drawing talent from India, Europe and Japan. Korea in the past was not on the priority list for global talent. But this has changed. Korea must provide the environment so as not to lose foreign talent to other countries.

Starting with semiconductors, the government must reexamine and redesign policy on breeding human resources in strategic technologies. Grooming people in the fields is necessary not only for immediate sustainability but also for long-term prospects. The Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Science and ICT and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy must establish a cooperative system. The National Science and Technology Commission must set up a committee on nurturing talent in strategic technologies.

Grooming the workforce in strategic technologies is urgent, but promoting overall science and engineering majors should be a long-term state goal. We cannot afford further losses of elites in science and technology anymore. Elite science schools have already turned into academies to send students to medical schools. We cannot go on recruiting science and tech majors after the medical school quota is filled.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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