Think tank: US will need to import semiconductor talent to fill new factories

Engineers at TSMC and Samsung look pretty good, so make sure they can get visas

The United States should hire more foreign talent and remove some visa barriers as part of a multi-pronged approach to secure its chip industry and supply chain, said a research analyst from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) – an American security and emerging technology policy think tank.

Speaking at an event titled Bringing the Chipmakers Home: Attracting Manufacturers and the Talent to Sustain Them, CSET's Will Hunt said "re-shoring" chip-making capacity to the USA should be complemented by other policies, including workforce development, high-skilled immigration reform, and streamlining processes for approving the construction of chip fabs.

According to research conducted by Hunt, CHIPS Act manufacturing incentives are expected to increase American silicon-related job growth, mainly in high-skilled engineering roles, by 13 per cent over the next decade. While the US can fill some of these 27,000 new positions by recruiting domestically from other industries and educating kids, a shortage of around 3,500 workers could be sourced from overseas talent.

"Ideally, many of these more than 3,500 foreign workers would be current employees of leading-edge logic chipmakers such as TSMC and Samsung, simply transferring from fabs overseas to these chipmakers' newly built fabs in the United States," wrote Hunt in a report that accompanied the event.

Hunt described employees from those specific firms as having "accumulated tacit engineering know-how crucial to building leading-edge DRAM and logic chips," which when aggregated forms a "critical competitive advantage in the chipmaking industry."

These chip worker imports would come on top of other skilled migration programs.

To facilitate the immigration, Hunt told the event that actions such as eliminating country-based caps on green cards could strengthen immigration pathways. In his white paper, he also suggested caps could be place on foreign chipmakers to give them an incentive to choose only their most critical employees.

"It is a significant increase over a status quo scenario, but it's also pretty doable. We're not talking about open borders, we're talking a targeted intervention capturing a very critical slice of global engineering talent," said Hunt, who then suggested: "You could focus on only workers who are planning to work in national security relevant industries like the semiconductor industry. You could also narrow it to only focus on those who have a Master's or a PhD."

The analyst pointed out that non-citizens make up the bulk of graduate students studying semiconductor-related subjects in the US. Hunt said the good news for the US was the foreign-born talent usually wants to stay in the States when given the choice.

"We're looking at PhD holders in semiconductor-relevant fields who are not American-born – especially the ones from China and India, but really everyone would like to stay in the United States if possible at pretty high rates," said Hunt.

The concept of American-educated Chinese brain-drain has been corroborated by other entities in the past, including recently from a major Chinese research university that had its paper pulled from the internet.

Predictably, Chinese media has had a field day with the recommendations and views expressed by Hunt, with headlines claiming CSET suggested the US "poach" over 3,500 workers from TSMC and Samsung.

The word "poach" may be a particularly interesting word at the moment as just this week Taiwan conducted a series of raids on tech firms, accusing the Chinese Communist Party of supporting the poaching of its talent while stealing its trade secrets.

In addition to developing alternative tech talent pipelines, Hunt said the US needs to understand what incentives Taiwan and Korea are offering, so that American firms can develop even stronger lures. The US also should work with allies to strategically diversify and share chip supply chain efforts instead of competing, so that all needed commodities are available. For example, there currently exists no onshore capacity for leading-edge logic and DRAM chips despite a big need to keep them flowing.

Furthermore, according to Hunt, it takes 4.5 years to build a fab in the US due to regulations. The foundries can therefore struggle to produce the latest generation of chips – an issue that needs to be considered when collaborating with other countries.

As to what would happen if the US were to lose access to semiconductor supplies, foreign or domestic, Hunt painted a grim picture:

If we lost access to chips coming from Taiwan and China we would lose 85 per cent of all leading-edge microprocessors in the world, almost two-thirds of more mature microprocessors and half of all DRAM chips.

So the economic and security implications here are serious. The US would be simultaneously facing a major foreign policy crisis, shortages in those chips and all of the technologies that require them, which include key military equipment as well as critical US infrastructure.

We'd also be facing a very likely economic crisis which would be much more severe than the turmoil resulting from the recent semiconductor shortages.

Hunt also asked if the US could or should expand its entity list (also known as the FDPR) to gain a foothold in some silicon markets it currently cannot address, and potentially prevent non-allied countries from gaining an upper hand.

He decided that's not a great approach because it could send a signal for chipmakers to avoid US technologies and develop alternatives.

"I think we have to use the FDPR very judiciously, is the the kind of boring but probably true answer to this this question," said the analyst. "It is something that if you overuse, I would expect it to become less effective over time." ®

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