MICROCHIPSU.S. Investment in Semiconductor Manufacturing: Building the Talent Pipeline

By Sherry Van Sloun

Published 21 September 2023

To reverse the three decade long decline in the United States’ share of semiconductor manufacturing, a concerted effort is required. Right now, the United States does not have the talent pool to support the ambitious goals of the August 2022 CHIPS Act.  

The Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) Act of August 2022 provides billions to bring the manufacturing of semiconductors back to the United States. Several leading companies have already signaled their intention to help make this happen. But each semiconductor fabrication plant (commonly known as fabs) needs hundreds of skilled engineers and technicians at all levels. Right now, the United States does not have the talent pool to support this ambitious undertaking.  

Currently, the United States manufactures just 12 percent of the world’s chips, down from 37 percent in 1990. This outsourcing of the manufacturing of semiconductors over the last three decades has caused semiconductor and hardware education to stagnate. While the number of students majoring in computer science has doubled since 2010, the number of chip-related degrees has remained static. The need to develop new curricula, labs, and instructors will remain a challenge for universities across the country. Additionally, pushing students toward degrees related to semiconductor work will require incentives due to the restrictive nature of the work itself. Many students studying computer science and engineering are more interested in other innovative areas or are simply unaware of the field and its lucrative opportunities. 

Companies like Intel Corporation, TSMC, and Micron are taking advantage of the CHIPS Act funding to build new or expanded fabs across the United States. They are working with universities and consortiums to both build updated curricula within existing engineering schools as well as standing up brand new degree or certificate programs with interested institutions. For example, Intel is building two cutting-edge chip factories in Ohio and partnering with the Ohio State University to build a consortium across the state. Assembling this educational ecosystem will take time, and producing enough graduates to meet the demand will remain a work in progress for years to come.  

Middle- and high-school students and parents across the United States still lack awareness of the field’s opportunities, a problem which has also yet to be strategically addressed. The Manufacturing Institute is working with students to increase awareness and change misperceptions about the industry. They also engage parents, educators, and community leaders on the lucrative opportunities of modern manufacturing. And while many of the necessary skills will be gained through traditional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) paths, other skills will be needed for the manufacturing life cycle. Companies including Micron and TSMC are investing in this area through STEM Chip/Tech Camps and competitions for K-12 students to provide access and awareness long before making a decision on higher education.

The lack of PhD recipients will be the most difficult pocket of talent to develop quickly. If the United States is serious about becoming a global leader in chip manufacturing, especially in leading-edge chips, it could be time to look at U.S. immigration policies. Today, any mention of immigration reform spurs political chaos; however, Congress has made exceptions in the past. In the late 1990s, the dot-com bubble caused a temporary increase in annual H1-B visas [PDF] for a limited period. This approach could assist efforts to staff new fabs. Canada uses similar policies to fill its high-tech labor shortages, and recently announced its first-ever tech-talent strategy.

Bringing semiconductor manufacturing back to the United States is a herculean task. Whether the CHIPS Act will be enough to build the infrastructure is yet to be seen, but the focus on human capital should be increased regardless. A robust talent pipeline is just as critical as new factories. 

Sherry Van Sloun was the National Intelligence Fellow at CFR from 2022-23. This article is published courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).