Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation, is determined to help more people discover careers in the microelectronics industry. As a woman and longtime leader in both education and tech, she has a keen understanding of how chip industry jobs are often not visible or accessible to many people. To address this, she is spearheading the SEMI Foundation’s Industry Image and Awareness Campaign. I asked Shari to tell me about herself, her passion for this work, and this important campaign.
Williams-Vaden: When did you join SEMI? What were you doing before? What is your background?
Liss: I joined the SEMI Foundation as executive director in September of 2019. I came to SEMI from Ignited, where as CEO I recruited, trained, and placed more than 400 educators in summer fellowships at top companies for transformative professional development that grew the Bay Area’s STEM talent pool and workforce pipelines. I'm an educator, a math geek, a mom, a musician, and a passionate advocate for a stronger, more diverse workforce.
Williams-Vaden: What is the Industry Image and Awareness Campaign?
Liss: The Industry Image and Awareness Campaign, which SEMI has been running for several years, aims to dramatically increase awareness of the huge breadth of careers in the microelectronics industry and build its talent pipeline. The current campaign includes national media exposure and education that highlights careers in the U.S. microelectronics industry. It has two main components: a PBS documentary about our industry that will reach up to 60 million households, and an interactive website that will walk visitors through STEM career pathways and provide resources that increase industry awareness and interest, particularly among women, veterans and people of color. Integrated with SEMI’s Global Workforce Development Initiative, the website will help connect prospective talent to job openings while also focusing on the industry’s long-term workforce needs. The platform will function as a seamless point of contact, supporting recruiting and retention for employers while also serving those in need of upskilling or reskilling. It will target current industry workers as well as prospective employees, including students, veterans, and workers in other occupations.
The two components will be integrated, with video content from the documentary series embedded on the website to provide inspiring stories from people already working in the industry.
Williams-Vaden: Why is this campaign important? What problem is it trying to solve in our industry?
Liss: Currently, SEMI member companies have tens of thousands of open positions. These can only be filled if we aggressively and purposely attack the talent gaps. When we talk with students, soldiers and other diverse communities, they have little awareness of the kind of work there is in microelectronics, the jobs that await them, and the industry itself. Our industry generally does not have the same name recognition or understanding as social media or software companies, and many potential workers don't know about us.
Students understand what’s on their phones and tablets – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok – but they don’t know that microelectronics technology powers all of it! STEM talent is already tough to find. Our industry’s relative invisibility makes it even more difficult to find the workers we need. This campaign aims to enlighten and inspire a new generation of innovative workers to join the microelectronics industry.
Williams-Vaden: Why does the microelectronics industry need a more diverse talent pipeline?
Liss: The workforce development challenges we face as an industry are layered. We all know that our industry – and our need for a skilled workforce – will continue to grow. We also know that women and people of color are widely underrepresented. They face systemic barriers that start in grade school and continue through each individual’s professional journey. This is not only a significant problem from a social justice and equity standpoint, but it also hampers our companies and our industry.
A large body of research shows that more diverse companies are more innovative, productive, competitive, and profitable. They also have less absenteeism, better retention, and greater company and customer loyalty. Our industry cannot fully thrive without a diverse workforce. That’s why reversing this trend is a priority and will take significant investments and systemic changes throughout the entire workforce pipeline. If we do that, we’ll have more successful companies and a dramatically improved industry over the next decade.
Williams-Vaden: Who are our partners in this effort?
Liss: We are working with Roadtrip Nation and CAEL, both affiliates of Strada Education.
Roadtrip Nation is an Emmy Award-winning media and career guidance nonprofit, whose mission is to empower people to define their own roads in life. Each year, Roadtrip Nation selects socially relevant topics for its narrative-based storytelling projects. Content from these “roadtrips” is then disseminated across a wide range of education and media channels to inspire the next generation with a more inclusive view of the future of work. Roadtrip Nation is creating the video content and the PBS documentary series focuses on the microelectronics industry.
The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) is a nonprofit that helps forge a clear, viable bridge between education and career success, providing solutions that promote sustainable and equitable economic growth. CAEL is creating our interactive online platform that will clarify career pathways and guide users in navigating the learning opportunities that connect them to industry jobs and enable upward mobility and access to leadership roles.
Williams-Vaden: How are we engaging our member companies in this work?
Liss: Our members and their talent needs are at the core of this work and informing it every step of the way. We are ensuring that the campaign meets these needs as well as those of our university partners, students and workforce development peers in the industry. Through multiple discovery sessions, we are capturing our members’ ideas, hiring challenges, skill gaps and other insights. The campaign’s member-based steering committee is guiding the project.
Williams-Vaden: What kinds of companies and leadership have been involved so far?
Liss: Participation has already been incredible, with 38 member companies having joined us for more than 15 hours of discovery sessions and brainstorming. A dozen member companies participate in the steering committee, which is currently defining career pathways and industry needs.
Williams-Vaden: What are the participating companies saying so far?
Liss: The response has been amazing! It is truly an unprecedented collaboration. Participants have been effusive about the experience. Here are some of their observations:
- “It was such a valuable and meaningful discussion. I was so glad to see that so many people from this industry are on the same page – perception, challenge, target audience, action items.”
- “I enjoyed the sessions very much and the insights from all participants, it is a valuable and meaningful cause.”
- “These are complex challenges that our industry faces, but kudos to you and SEMI for delving into the big issues and formulating a way forward to raise visibility and elevate perception for the next generation of leadership!”
- “This project will turn out great in the end! I am amazed at the progress in just a few days.”
- “I’m excited to see where this project can lead our industry! Thank you for all your hard work and leadership.”
- “The sequence of events was well structured, organized and focused. I strongly believe that these will be of great benefit to the industry!”
Williams-Vaden: What is the end result we’re working toward?
Liss: Through powerful storytelling, amazing networking opportunities, and targeted marketing and outreach tools, we will reach millions of potential employees and open their eyes to the terrific jobs and careers in our industry. The awareness campaign, the website, the videos and the documentary series are all tools that will also reach parents, teachers, school counselors, and industry influences, all while supporting our member companies in hiring.
Williams-Vaden: When can the industry expect to begin to see results of the campaign?
Liss: The Roadtrip Nation documentary series will likely air in the first half of 2022, and we anticipate the CAEL website to be live by mid-2022.
Williams-Vaden: What’s the most interesting or powerful lesson you’ve learned so far?
Liss: The most powerful thing that I’ve learned is that no matter the company, the leader, or the employee, they all agree on the critical importance of attracting and retaining talent to sustain innovation and industry growth. Because industry awareness and image is such a vital challenge, it’s creating a shared passion across companies and participants. It’s been exciting to see this alignment.
Williams-Vaden: Why are you such a champion of this? What does it mean to you personally?
Liss: Throughout my career, I have sought opportunities to grow and scale my impact in STEM education. From being an educator, to an administrator, to running a California-based STEM education nonprofit supporting educators, and now in my work at SEMI, I have always looked for ways to reach more educators and students. As my career progressed, my roles shifted to not just education content, but how to align industry and education. I am passionate about providing students with learning environments that help them understand how the subject matter applies to the real world. When we connect abstract concepts to real-world applications, the lessons tend to be so much more tangible and accessible to kids. It inspires them to want to keep learning those subjects and makes it more likely that they will be excited about what they are studying.
At SEMI, I love that I can help form partnerships between the industry and education providers to amplify these messages. I look forward to working with industry stakeholders to provide career opportunities for diverse populations, for soldiers, and for women returning to work.
For more information about the Industry Image and Awareness Campaign, contact Shari at email@example.com.
Michelle Williams-Vaden is deputy director of the SEMI Foundation.