This is the second installment of a series that reports on security-focused, public-private industrial policies.
In a cleanroom with controlled temperature and humidity at the Kumamoto campus of the Kumamoto National Institute of Technology in Koshi, Kumamoto Prefecture, Associate Prof. Kenichiro Takakura advised his students, “You have to start all over again if you drop or damage anything, so do your work carefully.”
Six fifth-year students in the Department of Information, Communication and Electronic Engineering at this kosen or “college of technology” — a five-year educational institution whose students attend directly after junior high school — listened to the teacher attentively. They immediately began their practical training in the production of semiconductors.
The training lasted for about two hours, during which they cut silicon wafers 10 centimeters in diameter, which form the substrates for semiconductors, and made a film from aluminum vaporized at more than 600 C in a vacuum. All the procedures were done by hand.
With the intensifying friction between the United States and China, semiconductors have become a strategic commodity that may determine the rise and fall of industry in general.
With the entry of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) into Kumamoto and Rapidus Corp.’s plans to domestically produce cutting-edge semiconductors in Hokkaido, momentum for the revival of the semiconductor industry in Japan is growing.
However, Japan’s semiconductor industry — which once dominated the global market — has seen its international competitiveness decline and the foundation for its human resources weaken.
“We plan to shift to expanding our business, but we feel uneasy when looking 10 to 20 years into the future,” a senior official in charge of managing the production system at a leading Japanese semiconductor company said.
Nurturing human resources in the field of semiconductors has become an urgent issue. The initiatives taken in the Kyushu region — which center on kosen, or five-year “colleges of technology,” like the Kumamoto National Institute of Technology — are viewed as leading examples in Japan. Students who attend kosen do so directly after junior high school.
The government in 2022 decided to focus on fostering manpower for the production and development of semiconductors at nine kosen in the Kyushu and Okinawa regions, and designated one kosen in Kumamoto and another in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, as the key schools.
Both schools have established a new course, “The Outlines of Semiconductor Engineering,” with engineers from major semiconductor manufacturers serving as visiting lecturers and students going on factory tours.
Kumamoto University will newly establish the School of Informatics faculty next spring, creating a course that allows students to study semiconductors in general, without being bound by science or humanities curriculums.
“Local universities have a responsibility to produce high-caliber personnel who will support the industry.” said Prof. Masahiro Iida.
Japan is not the only country with a shortage of manpower related to semiconductors. Taiwan’s Minghsin University of Science and Technology established the Semiconductor School in 2021. With about 2,300 students and about 60 faculty members with practical experience, the school aims to cultivate skilled personnel for the semiconductor industry.
The practical training it offers is highly regarded. Company officials in charge of personnel management sometimes wait in front of classrooms to make contact with students.
“We’re learning not only the structure of devices and how to use them, but also ways to deal with trouble with the equipment and so forth, which will help us study practical things by imagining what it will be like in the workplace,” said a 22-year-old junior student.
Amid the rush to build semiconductor factories worldwide, the competition for human resources is also expanding globally. Taiwan is cultivating high-level human resources, but the outflow of such personnel to U.S. companies, which offer higher salaries, is a source of concern.
“It’s important to have access to the most advanced manufacturing processes,” said Taiwan’s Economic Affairs Minister Mei-Hua Wang, talking about how having cutting-edge technology helps secure human resources.