One problem with America's chip ambitions: Not quite enough staff

Semi industry fears US will be short 70K engineers, technicians, computer scientists by end of decade

Last week, TSMC postponed production at its under-construction Arizona chip fab until at least 2025 because it said it couldn't find enough skilled workers to complete the facility. This could be a sign of things to come.

Judging from a report this month by US trade group the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and UK-based Oxford Economics, it's not just TSMC wringing its hands.

The pair estimate America's semiconductor industry faces a shortfall of 67,000 technicians, engineers, and computer scientists by 2030. These tech workers are needed to build and staff the multi-billion-dollar factories the country has been promised by the likes of Intel and TSMC, as well as help design components.

Register readers were warned of this looming problem last year.

"Our analysis showcases the critical high-skilled roles across the semiconductor sector and the likely skill shortages the industry will face, if proactive talent development measures are not taken," Dan Martin, senior economist and lead researcher at Oxford Economics, said in a statement on Tuesday.

This poses a problem for the United States' efforts to bolster its domestic semiconductor manufacturing capacity. The US CHIPS and Science Act unlocked $39 billion in subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives designed to convince chipmakers to set up shop, or expand their footprint, on American soil.

These efforts are expected to create nearly 115,000 jobs in the semiconductor sector, the SIA said. But the group estimated the US is going to need to train 26,400 new technicians, 27,300 new engineers, and 13,400 new computer scientists before the end of the decade to ensure there isn't a shortage of key staff. This is based on the number of people studying for qualifications, we're told.

From the report:

We project the semiconductor industry's workforce will grow by nearly 115,000 jobs by 2030, from approximately 345,000 jobs today to approximately 460,000 jobs by the end of the decade, representing 33% growth. Of these new jobs, we estimate roughly 67,000 — or 58% of projected new jobs (and 80% of projected new technical jobs) — risk going unfilled at current degree completion rates. Of the unfilled jobs, 39% will be technicians, most of whom will have certificates or two-year degrees; 35% will be engineers with four-year degrees or computer scientists; and 26% will be engineers at the master's or PhD level.

Even as the first US fab projects get off the ground, foundry operators are already running into trouble finding folks capable of installing, configuring, and running them. To fill the gap, TSMC has resorted to sending technicians from Taiwan to get locals up to speed. This ultimately put its US foundry expansion a year behind schedule.

While the SIA and Oxford Economics project a shortfall of tens of thousands of workers, Intel, which has large fab developments underway in Ohio and Phoenix, is more pessimistic. In a statement provided to The Register, the Xeon processor giant said the "US semiconductor industry could face a shortage of 70,000 to 90,000 workers over the next few years."

For this reason, it's working with universities, community colleges, and the National Science Foundation to establish a talent pipeline to attract fresh workers.

"Through its contractors and suppliers, Intel also contributes significantly to training and apprenticeship programs designed to both up-skill current workers and attract new workers by providing best-in-class pay, benefits, and safety programs to meet future skillset demand," the Silicon Valley titan said.

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And Intel isn't alone. We've seen similar investments from other large American chipmakers over the past year. Alongside a $15 billion fab, announced last summer in Idaho, Micron detailed its plans to expand STEM programming to K-12 and university students through partnerships with education institutions in the region.

While self-serving, as we've previously reported, these investments are also one of several requirements foundry operators must meet to qualify for CHIPS funds from the public purse. For Intel, this is expected to amount to billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies.

The SIA acknowledged the chipmakers' efforts, though the lobby group, unsurprisingly, thinks Uncle Sam should be more involved. "The US government must work with industry and academia to prioritize measures to address the skills gap facing the broader economy and the semiconductor industry," the association's report reads.

The trade body offered three recommendations to remedy the situation. They essentially boil down to making pursuing a career in technical, engineering, and computer science fields more attractive, creating opportunities for more to do so, and making it easier for international students to stay in the US after graduation and find jobs in the Land of the Free.

Of course, it's worth noting that the skill shortage highlighted in the study isn't unique to the semiconductor industry. The SIA noted that there is a shortage of technical folks and engineers across the whole US economy, and predicts a shortfall of 1.4 million workers by 2030. ®

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