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America’s semiconductor boom faces big challenge: Not enough workers

A Taiwan semiconductor manufacturing plant under construction in Phoenix. The US is on the cusp of a semiconductor manufacturing boom. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON — Maxon Wille, an 18-year-old in Surprise, Arizona, was driving toward Interstate 17 last year when he noticed a massive construction site: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., at work on its new factory in Phoenix.

A few weeks later, as he was watching YouTube, an advertisement popped up for a local community college’s 10-day programme that trains people to become semiconductor technicians. He graduated from the course this month and now hopes to work at the plant once it opens.

“I can see this being the next big thing,” Mr Wille said.

Chip manufacturers say they will need to attract more workers like Mr Wille to staff the plants that are being built across the United States. America is on the cusp of a semiconductor manufacturing boom, strengthened by billions of dollars that the federal government is funneling into the sector. President Joe Biden had said the funding will create thousands of well-paying jobs, but one question looms large: Will there be enough workers to fill them?

“My biggest fear is investing in all this infrastructure and not having the people to work there,” said Shari Liss, the executive director of the Semi Foundation, a nonprofit arm of Semi, an association that represents electronics manufacturing companies.

Lawmakers passed the 2022 Chips Act with lofty ambitions to remake the US into a semiconductor powerhouse, in part to reduce America’s reliance on foreign nations. The law included US$39 billion (S$52.5 billion) to fund the construction of new and expanded semiconductor facilities.

More than 50 new facility projects have been announced since the Chips Act was introduced, and private companies have pledged more than US$210 billion in investments, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

But that investment has run headfirst into the tightest labour market in years.

Chip manufacturers have long found it difficult to hire workers because of a lack of awareness of the industry and too few students entering relevant academic fields. Company officials say they expect it to become even more difficult to hire for a range of critical positions, including the construction workers building the plants, the technicians operating equipment and engineers designing chips.

The US semiconductor industry could face a shortage of about 70,000 to 90,000 workers over the next few years, according to a Deloitte report. McKinsey has also projected a shortfall of about 300,000 engineers and 90,000 skilled technicians in the US by 2030.

Chipmakers have also struggled to hire more employees due to a shortage of skilled workers and competition with with big tech firms for engineers. Many students who graduate with advanced engineering degrees in the US were born abroad, and immigration rules make it challenging to obtain visas to work in the country.

In an effort to meet the labour demand, the Biden administration said this month that it would create five initial “workforce hubs” in cities like Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio, to help train more women, people of colour and other underrepresented workers in industries like chip manufacturing.

Government and company officials have also pushed for changes to better retain foreign-born Stem graduates, but immigration remains a controversial topic in Washington, and few are optimistic about reforms. Stem is a common abbreviation for four closely connected areas of study: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Some industry leaders are looking to technology as an antidote, since automation and artificial intelligence can amplify the output of a single engineer, but companies are mostly putting their faith into training programmes.

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

Gabriela Cruz Thompson, director of university research collaboration at Intel Labs, said the company anticipated creating 6,700 jobs over the next five to 10 years. About 70 per cent would be for technicians who typically have a two-year degree or certificate.

She said that the industry had faced staffing challenges for years and that she was concerned about the number of “available and talented skilled workers” who could fill all of the new Intel positions.

“I am confident,” she said. “But am I fully certain, 100 per cent? No.”

Micron, which pledged as much as US$100 billion over the next two decades or more to build a huge chip factory complex in New York, has also deployed new workforce programmes, including ones that train veterans and teach middle and high school students about Stem careers through “chip camps.”

Bo Machayo, the director of US federal affairs at Micron, said the company anticipated needing roughly 9,000 employees after its full build-out in the region.

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

Universities are also expanding undergraduate and graduate engineering programmes. Purdue started a semiconductor degree program last year, and Syracuse, which has worked with Micron and 20 other institutions to enhance related curriculum, plans to increase its engineering enrollment 50 per cent over the next three to five years.

At Onondaga Community College, near Micron’s build-out in New York, officials will offer a new two-year degree and one-year certificate in electromechanical technology starting this fall. The programs were already underway before Micron’s announcement to build the chip factory complex but would help students gain the qualifications needed to work there, said Timothy Stedman, the college’s dean of natural and applied sciences.

Although he felt optimistic, he said interest could be lower than officials hoped. Enrollment in the college’s electrical and mechanical technology programmes has noticeably declined from two decades ago because more students have started to view four-year college degrees as the default path.

“We’re starting to see the pendulum swing a little bit as people have realized that these are well-paying jobs,” Mr Stedman said. “But I think there still needs to be a fair amount of work done.” NYTIMES