A New Silicon Heartland: How Midwest Academic Institutions Aim to Revitalize U.S. Semiconductor Production

In 1990, the U.S. boasted 37% of all global semiconductor chip manufacturing. Fast forward 30 years later to 2020, and that number had dropped to 12%. Amid recent private and government-based efforts to bolster U.S. semiconductor production, a network of Midwestern community colleges and public and private universities are working together to jumpstart the industry in America’s heartland. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang and Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

In August 2022, President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, affirming the United States’ commitment to revitalizing its ailing, but formerly dominant, semiconductor industry. 

Passage of the act, which will spend $280 million over the next ten years to incentivize American companies to produce semiconductors, comes amid new efforts to bolster chip-making capacity in the Midwest. 

In early 2022, Intel — the second largest semiconductor company in the world by revenue — announced it would invest more than $20 billion to build two new factories about 40 miles northeast of Columbus in Licking County, Ohio. Once completed, the factories will create 3,000 Intel jobs and create tens of thousands of “local long-term jobs,” according to a January 2022 company news release.

With emerging opportunities for semiconductor production in the Midwest, some experts say the region requires a larger workforce and a more comprehensive push by educators — from grade schools to universities — to meet this demand. And that is where the Midwest Semiconductor Network is hoping to help fill the gaps.

The network, which was established following a two-day workshop at The Ohio State University in April 2022, was originally founded by 12 Midwestern universities. Today, the organization represents more than 30 postsecondary institutions from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky, all with the goal of using research, experiential and curricular learning programs to create and support a workforce that can help boost semiconductor production in the Midwest.

“We’re squarely focused on, ‘How can we position the Midwest to become the next Silicon Heartland?’” Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska, the Vice President for Knowledge Enterprise at The Ohio State University, said. “Frankly speaking, nobody until very recently would have thought about the Midwest as a place to go for semiconductors. That is going to change.”

‘Building an innovation ecosystem’

Grejner-Brzezinska, who organized the original workshop, is also a member of the MSN Governance Board, which leads the network’s activities. The Board is composed of two members from four-year colleges and universities and one member elected to represent a community college from each of the network’s “core” states — Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. 

According to Grejner-Brzezinska, discussions about creating a network began immediately following Intel’s early 2022 announcement, with OSU leading the efforts. Following a workshop focusing on Semiconductor production and involving around 120 people, including academic experts, provosts and vice presidents for research, the MSN was born.

“For us, it was an immediate opportunity to lead a broader network of schools to connect because we fully understood as others did that one university or one college or even the entire state of Ohio may not be able to provide a needed workforce,” Grejner-Brzezinska said.

In order to create a larger workforce with expertise in semiconductor production, Grejner-Brzezinska said institutions within MSN, including four-year colleges and universities and community colleges, are creating new programs to teach their students skills applicable to the industry. 

“Building an innovation ecosystem is the name of the game right now,” she said.

In June, OSU announced it would launch two undergraduate minors, two undergraduate certificates and six graduate certificate programs starting this fall to respond to greater demand for “semiconductor-savvy” talent. 

Some institutions outside of Ohio have announced similar programs. Purdue University, located in Indiana, launched its Semiconductor Degrees Program in May 2022. The program allows students to choose whether to enroll in a bachelor’s, minor or certificate program that focuses on subjects related to semiconductor production, such as materials, manufacturing and supply chain management.

Additionally, MSN has incorporated private companies into their network by cooperating with an Industry Advisory Board with representatives from six semiconductor or microelectronics-based companies, including Texas Instruments and Intel. 

“We would like to be the national model for regional partnerships,” Grejner-Brzezinska said.

Many Midwestern institutions, however, have already emphasized semiconductor-specific education and are continuing to build their programs, like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

John Dallesasse, a professor of Electric and Computer Engineering at UIUC, said the university’s Grainger College of Engineering has historically made contributions to the microelectronics industry. He said that John Bardeen, one of the inventors of the transistor, had taught as a professor at UIUC, which was also one of the first schools to offer a fabrication course. Fabrication is the process by which semiconductors are manufactured.

Dallesasse, who is also a member of the MSN governance board, also said that the university is considering further courses and programs to help facilitate a growing semiconductor workforce.

According to him, MSN’s goals are being informed by the CHIPS and Science Act, as the network is working to increase the United States semiconductor capacity. Although many of the policy’s impacts are yet to be seen, Dallesasse said it is a step in the right direction even if funding from the act would need to be increased in the future to jumpstart the industry nationwide.

“I think that there’s going to have to be additional [CHIPS and Science Act] supplements that take place going forward if we’re really serious about restoring our position in the industry,” Dallesasse said. 

Rebuilding semiconductor capabilities

According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, the U.S. boasted 37% of all global chip manufacturing in 1990. However, 30 years later, in 2020, that number dropped to 12%. 

Although semiconductor sales by U.S.-headquartered firms increased from $102 billion in 2000 to $207.9 billion in 2020, according to estimates by the SIA, U.S. semiconductor capacity decreased by about 10% from 2013 to 2021.

According to Stephen Nelson, a political science professor at Northwestern University, the precipitous drop in U.S. semiconductor production in the past three decades can largely be attributed to the outsourcing of work to nations overseas, like Taiwan and China, which provide cheaper labor. According to SIA, China represents the largest regional semiconductor market of any nation in the world at 24% with Taiwan at a close second at 21%.

Nelson said the creation of companies in the 1980s like the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company coincided with the globalization of supply chains, shifting production outside of the U.S.

According to an S&P Global report, however, nations and organizations — including the U.S., European Union and China — are working to localize semiconductor production in order to allay supply chain concerns that came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic. But these may not be the only reasons.

Given recent geopolitical events and growing backlash against globalization, Nelson said place increasingly matters in terms of producing goods. Furthermore, he said that in the 1990s there was a greater resistance to the idea that market prices reflected values.

“The Biden agenda rejects that and says, ‘Actually, what you make matters and making chips means making good jobs for workers who might otherwise end up in precarious low-wage and, to some extent, kind of undignified gig-economy style work,’” Nelson said.

Nelson said he believes there are two reasons why the Midwest has been selected as a region of focus for increased semiconductor production: one political and one more labor-oriented. 

Through the CHIPS and Science Act, he said Democrats likely want to create more high-value jobs in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. He also said Midwestern states tend to be pro-labor as well, in addition to being home to many universities with renowned engineering programs, such as OSU and Purdue University in Indiana.

“You have a string of institutions that have really strong engineering programs,” Nelson said. “That helps solve a problem that the reshoring efforts confronts, which is the United States has depleted human capital when it comes to high-end production and labor-intensive production with the deindustrialization.”

Nevertheless, the Midwest has seen a diminished role in the semiconductor trade in the past few decades.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, none of the top six states for exporting in semiconductor manufacturing in 2022 — Texas, Oregon, California, Arizona, Florida and Massachusetts — are located in the Midwest. 

Nonetheless, some Midwestern states have more extensive histories of semiconductor production. Dallesasse said Illinois was once a world leader in compound semiconductor production. Additionally, Kokomo, Indiana, is the site of a once-bustling automotive components plant for General Motors. 

But much of this production has since shifted to coastal states, according to Dallesasse.

After earning a doctorate in Electrical and Computer Engineering from UIUC in 1991, Dallesasse said most of his career opportunities were either based in Texas or the East or West Coast. To attract people with skills related to semiconductor production, he said, the Midwest will have to build a new infrastructure. 

“We have to reestablish the infrastructure to support a new capability that comes in the Midwest,” he said. “The good thing is that that creates high-value jobs and economic stimulus. There’s a lot of positive benefit that’s going to happen in the Midwest as that capability is established.”

The new Intel facility in Ohio might provide the first step toward creating that infrastructure. 

In a February 2022 column for POLITICO titled “Midwest sets stage for US Semiconductor Leadership,” Intel’s Chief Government Affairs Officer Bruce Andrews wrote that the plant is an “important step” toward making the U.S. the top semiconductor manufacturer in the world again.

Grejner-Brzezinska said the facility is located in an optimal location, given the significant number of universities in the region. She said the “richness of the academic environment” in the Columbus area could attract recent college graduates.

“There’s an enormous opportunity for the leadership in the region to capitalize on,” Grejner-Brzezinska said. “There are lots of students who graduate with a degree in engineering and would like to stay, but we don’t have enough jobs. So the collaboration between academia, industry and the local government in job creation is key to our success.”

Dallesasse also said the new Intel facility could bolster Midwestern semiconductor production efforts. But, according to him, it is important that these efforts be leveraged to prevent the Midwest from losing the capability to make semiconductor devices of all kinds.

“The U.S. can’t afford to diminish its manufacturing capacity anymore,” Dallesasse said. “[If] we drop much below where we’re at right now, we may reach a point where we can never recover.”


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