U.S. Semiconductor Boom Faces a Worker Shortage

U.S. Semiconductor Boom Faces a Worker Shortage

Maxon Wille, an 18-year-old from Surprise, Arizona, was driving down Interstate 17 last year when he noticed a huge construction site: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company at work on its new Phoenix factory.

A few weeks later, while watching YouTube, an ad popped up for a local community college’s 10-day program that trains people to become semiconductor engineers. He completed the course this month and now hopes to work at the plant once it opens.

“I can imagine that this will be the next big thing,” said Mr. Wille.

Semiconductor manufacturers say they need to attract more workers like Mr. Wille to the workforce at factories being built across the United States. America is on the cusp of a semiconductor manufacturing boom fueled by billions of dollars the federal government is pouring into the sector. President Biden had said the funding will create thousands of well-paying jobs, but one question stands out: Will there be enough labor to fill them?

“My biggest fear is investing in all this infrastructure and not having the people who can work there,” said Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation, a nonprofit arm of SEMI, an association representing electronics manufacturing companies. “The impact could be really significant if we don’t figure out how to generate excitement and interest in this industry.”

Lawmakers passed the CHIPS Act in 2022 with the ambitious goal of turning the United States back into a semiconductor powerhouse, in part to reduce America’s reliance on foreign nations for the tiny chips that power everything from dishwashers to computers to cars. The law earmarked $39 billion to fund the construction of new and expanded semiconductor facilities, and manufacturers wanting a portion of the subsidies have already announced expansions across the country.

According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, more than 50 new plant projects have been announced since the CHIPS Act was introduced, and private companies have committed more than $210 billion in investments.

But that investment has plunged into the tightest job market in years, and employers across the country are struggling to find workers. Semiconductor manufacturers have long struggled to recruit workers due to a lack of industry knowledge and undergraduates in relevant academic fields. Company officials believe it will become even more difficult to fill a number of critical positions, including builders who build the facilities, technicians who operate equipment and engineers who design chips.

According to a Deloitte report, the US semiconductor industry could face a shortage of about 70,000 to 90,000 workers in the next few years. McKinsey also predicts that the United States will be short of approximately 300,000 engineers and 90,000 skilled technicians by 2030.

Semiconductor makers are struggling to hire more workers, partly because authorities say there aren’t enough skilled workers and they have to compete with big tech companies for engineers. Many students pursuing engineering degrees in the United States were foreign-born, and immigration regulations make it difficult to obtain a visa to work in the country.

Ronnie Chatterji, the White House CHIPS implementation coordinator, said filling the new positions would be challenging, but he was confident Americans would want them as they became more aware of the industry’s domestic expansion.

“While it wasn’t the most attractive job opportunity for people compared to the other things they graduate with, it wasn’t on the radar either,” Mr. Chatterji said. He added that America would be less “prosperous” if companies could increase production but lacked the employees to do so.

To meet the labor needs, the Biden administration announced this month that it would initially create five “work centers” in cities like Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio, to train more women, blacks and other underrepresented workers in industries like semiconductor manufacturing .

Administrative and corporate officials have also pushed for changes to better retain foreign-born STEM graduates, but immigration remains a controversial issue in Washington, and few are optimistic about reform.

Some industry leaders are turning to technology as the antidote, as automation and artificial intelligence can boost the performance of a single engineer. However, companies mainly rely on training programs. Federal officials have supported these efforts, noting that CHIPS Act funds could be used for workforce development.

Intel announced plans to spend $20 billion on two new chip fabs in Arizona and more than $20 billion on a new chip manufacturing complex in Ohio, and has invested millions in partnerships with community colleges and universities to train technicians and provide related curriculum to expand.

Gabriela Cruz Thompson, head of university research collaborations at Intel Labs, said the company expects to create 6,700 jobs over the next five to 10 years. About 70 percent are technicians, who typically have a two-year degree or certificate.

She said that the industry has faced staffing issues for years and that she is concerned about the number of “available and talented professionals” who could fill all of Intel’s new positions.

“I’m confident,” she said. “But am I absolutely sure, 100 percent? NO.”

Micron, which has pledged up to $100 billion to build a massive chip manufacturing complex in New York over the next two decades or more, has also introduced new workforce programs, including ones that train veterans and teach STEM students to middle and high school students. Place jobs through “chip camps”.

Bo Machayo, Micron’s director of US federal affairs, said the company expects to need about 9,000 employees after it fully expands in the region.

“We understand it’s a challenge, but we also see it as an opportunity,” he said.

To be considered for federal grants, manufacturers must submit applications to the Department of Commerce that include detailed plans for recruiting and retaining workers. Companies requesting more than $150 million are expected to provide affordable, quality child care.

“We don’t think a company can just post a bunch of job vacancies online and hope the right people will show up,” said Kevin Gallagher, a senior adviser to the Secretary of Commerce.

The lack of interest in the industry is evident from academic institutions. Karl Hirschman, director of microelectronics at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the university is “nowhere near” peak enrollment for its microelectronics degree, which prepares students for careers in the semiconductor industry. An average of about 20 new students are enrolled each year, compared to more than 200 for the university’s mechanical engineering program.

Although graduates of more popular engineering degrees could work in the semiconductor industry, Hirschman said many of them are more aware of and more attracted to technology companies like Google and Facebook.

“We don’t have enough students to meet the demand,” he said. “It’s only going to get more challenging.”

Community colleges, universities, and school districts are creating or expanding programs to attract more students to the industry.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, three community colleges have partnered with Intel to offer a “fast start” program that prepares students to become entry-level technicians in just 10 days. During the four-hour class, students learn the basics of chip-making, practice using hand tools, and try on the head-to-toe lab coats technicians wear.

More than 680 students have enrolled in the program since it began in July, said Leah Palmer, executive director of the Arizona Advanced Manufacturing Institute at Mesa Community College. The program is free for domestic students who complete it and pass a certification test.

In Oregon, the Hillsboro School District last year launched a two-year manufacturing education program that allows 16- to 18-year-old students to earn high school credits and get paid to work on the manufacturing floors of semiconductor companies. Five students are taking part, and officials hope to add at least three more to the next cohort, said Claudia Rizo, district youth apprenticeship project manager.

“We hope that students will receive job offers from the companies if they choose to work full-time, but are also open to the possibility of pursuing post-secondary education at a college or university,” Ms. Rizo said.

Universities are also expanding bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. Purdue launched a semiconductor undergraduate program last year, and Syracuse, which has worked with Micron and 20 other institutions to improve semiconductor curriculum, plans to increase the number of engineers by 50 percent over the next three to five years.

At Onondaga Community College, near Micron’s new building in New York, officials will be offering a new two-year degree and one-year certificate in electromechanical technology starting this fall. The programs ran before Micron announced it would build the chip factory complex, but would help students gain the skills needed to work there, said Timothy Stedman, the college’s dean of science and applied sciences.

Though optimistic, he said interest may be less than officials had hoped. Enrollment in the college’s electrical and mechanical engineering degree programs has declined significantly compared to two decades ago, as more students have begun to view four-year college degrees as the standard route.

“We’re starting to see the pendulum swing a little bit as people realize these are good-paying jobs,” Mr. Stedman said. “But I think there is still work to be done.”

Ana Swanson contributed to the coverage.