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Growing talent gap in U.S. chip space emerges as makers spend billions

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US President Joe Biden visits Wolfspeed, a semiconductor manufacturer, in Durham, North Carolina, on March 28, 2023. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
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A push to re-shore semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. has spurred massive spending, and with it, concerns about the size of the skilled workforce.

President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act into law one year ago, and semiconductor companies across the United States have promised to spend $231 billion on building chip manufacturing hubs on American soil. Now, as the shovels hit the ground to begin construction, companies are realizing how difficult it is to find talent.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the largest contract chipmaker in the world, said it had to delay production at its $40 billion Arizona plant due to a lack of workers in the U.S.

“We’re still looking for more qualified skilled trades people across the board,” said TSMC Arizona President Brian Harrison. “We are installing our unique-to-the-United-States and extremely advanced pieces of equipment.”

TSMC is bringing in workers from Taiwan to handle the high-tech equipment and train U.S. workers.

“[U.S. workers] just don’t have experience on these specific tools and techniques,” Harrison said.

But not everyone is a fan of TSMC’s approach. The Arizona Pipe Trades 469 union has helped fund a website called “Stand with American Workers” accusing TSMC of overlooking Arizona workers in favor of Taiwanese counterparts in an attempt to “exploit cheap labor.”

But Harrison argued that’s a misconception: “It actually is more expensive to bring the worker from Taiwan, pay them a fair U.S. salary while they’re in the U.S. and pay for all their relocation and housing and support.”

Microchip and flag of United States displayed on a phone screen are seen in this multiple exposure illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on April 12, 2023. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Jakup Porzycki | Nurphoto | Getty Images

Much of the semiconductor supply chain is based overseas, which means there are fewer qualified workers to staff these facilities here in the U.S.

The chip industry in the U.S. is projected to grow by nearly 115,000 jobs by 2030, according to a new study from Oxford Economics and the Semiconductor Industry Association. The study finds 67,000 of those jobs for technicians, computer scientists and engineers risk going unfilled by 2030 due to a lack of educational training programs and school funding.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger agreed that the industry’s workforce could be better-skilled, but laid some of the blame in navigating those challenges on TSMC.

“I think they’re inexperienced operating on a global fashion. Samsung hasn’t complained as they’re building in the U.S., but they’re very much a global company,” Gelsinger said.

“That said, we do see that skilled labor — right in the construction, as well as skilled labor for our fabs — is something we got to work on,” he added.

More than 50 community colleges announced new or expanded semiconductor workforce programs since the CHIPS Act was passed last year.

Student applications for full-time jobs posted by semiconductor firms were up 79% in the 2022-2023 academic year, compared with 19% for other industries, according to student job positing website Handshake. And many chip firms are investing heavily in building their own pipeline of talent through collaborations with local middle schools, high schools, community colleges and universities.

Semiconductor manufacturer GlobalFoundries, as an example, has partnerships with Georgia Institute of Technology and Purdue University to collaborate on semiconductor research and education.

But CEO Tom Caulfield said there’s more work to be done.

“I think the industry will come under a lot of pressure. And therefore, we will too, as we try to double the amount of [manufacturing] capacity in the U.S. over the next decade,” he said.

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