America Needs More Foreign STEM Talent To Produce Semiconductors. The CHIPS Act Won’t Fix That.

“”The U.S. currently does not produce enough doctorates and master’s degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math fields who can go on to work in U.S.-based microchip plants,” write Brendan Bordelon and Eleanor Mueller for Politico. “The U.S. now produces fewer native-born recipients of advanced STEM degrees than most of its international rivals.”
According to a report from Eightfold AI, which runs a work force artificial intelligence platform,* the U.S. would need to fill between 70,000 and 90,000 fabrication jobs in order to have the numbers necessary for critical applications. And chipmakers are already struggling due to the insufficient availability of workers—the Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation had aimed to open a new chip fabrication facility in Arizona this September, but had to delay the opening by six months due in part to a labor shortage.

Though the CHIPS Act carries a hefty price tag, it’ll do little to solve the underlying labor shortage that’s stymying domestic production in the short term. All 17 of the semiconductor experts surveyed by the Government Accountability Office noted the need to implement work force development policies, and many specifically suggested immigration reform. The CHIPS Act’s proponents argue that key provisions would help encourage native-born Americans to enter STEM fields and boost the semiconductor labor force down the road. But lawmakers intent on boosting chip manufacturing in the near future would be foolish to neglect foreign talent—much of which is already on American soil.

Allowing foreign-born students educated in STEM fields at American universities to stay in the country could help alleviate the labor shortages that semiconductor firms are facing.”

The CHIPS Act won’t solve the chip shortage

“On its face, the idea of increasing semiconductor manufacturing in the US seems like it would help address the global supply crunch for computer chips, which has made it harder to buy everything from cars and laptops to sex toys and medical devices during the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has even suggested that the funding package could help fight inflation, presumably by making these goods cheaper.

But while it’s certainly fair to call the legislation a victory for bipartisanship, this plan is primarily focused on keeping up with China’s growing investment in its own domestic chip industry — not solving the present issues with the tech supply chain. The chip factories produced by this package won’t be complete for years, and the bulk of the funding won’t necessarily go toward basic chips, also known as legacy chips, which account for much of the ongoing shortage. And that shortage may be nearing its end anyway.”

Don’t Give U.S. Chipmakers a $76 Billion Government Handout

“The current legislation has swelled to a total cost of more than $400 billion. The core of the bill is $76 billion in direct funding for domestic semiconductor manufacturing through a variety of grants and tax credits. The rest of the money, beyond doubling the budget of the notoriously silly spenders at the National Science Foundation, is predictably a billion here and a billion there for vaguely named programs with even more ambiguous purposes. For example, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board pointed out, “The Commerce Department gets $11 billion, most of which it intends to plow into creating 20 new ‘regional technology hubs,’ which will somehow expand ‘U.S. innovation capacity.'””

“Proponents of the legislation would have you believe that the U.S. is overly reliant on foreign, unreliable suppliers of semiconductors, particularly those under threat from China. Semiconductors are unbelievably important components in practically countless goods relied on every day, but that’s no excuse to ignore the fact that the domestic semiconductor industry is, per a 2020 report by the Semiconductor Industry Association, “on solid footing.” U.S.-based semiconductor firms hold nearly half of the global market share, and 44 percent of that production already occurs in the U.S. Moreover, these figures don’t even capture firms based in allied countries such as South Korea and Taiwan that are currently spending billions of dollars to open semiconductor manufacturing facilities in the U.S.—without the need for funding.”

America is trying to fix the chip shortage one factory at a time

“Making chips is an intricate process, but building a factory that can do this type of manufacturing is even more complicated. For one thing, fabs can’t go just anywhere. They need to be close to a reliable source of electricity, since they can use as much energy as 50,000 homes in a single year (they release a lot of carbon emissions, too). These factories also need to be near a large body of water, which they use to clean and cool down their equipment, which, in turn, produces wastewater that needs to be treated. And it’s better if they’re not particularly close to any airports or geological fault lines; seismic activity can disrupt the incredibly precise machinery they use.

Then there’s the matter of the supply chain. Beyond the fab, making a chip can involve 70 different border crossings and more than 1,000 steps, and a single disruption in one country or during a particular step can throw the entire process off course. That’s because there are usually very few, if any, other options for supplies when something goes wrong. For example, just one company in the Netherlands, ASML, makes the specialized, $200 million lithography tools that many advanced chip fabs rely on. And just two firms, both based in Ukraine, supply about half of the specialized neon gas that fabs throughout the world use to control these lasers. Of course, securing all this equipment has gotten even more difficult during the pandemic.”

“concern is based, in part, on fears that China may invade Taiwan at some point and attempt to take control of its chip-manufacturing capacity. But there are other reasons to be worried about the state of US semiconductors. The US doesn’t currently make very many of the most basic, or legacy, chips, which are typically produced where they can be made for less. These are the chips that became unavailable during the pandemic, and that made lots of technology hard to find and drove up car prices. The US will also need to manufacture more chips to maintain its hold on the auto industry, since EVs will likely need at least twice as many chips as their gas-powered counterparts do.”

The chip shortage has a silver lining

“Manufacturers haven’t overcome the worldwide semiconductor shortage. Gaming consoles like the PlayStation 5 are still scarce, automakers are delivering cars with missing features, and Apple may end up producing 10 million fewer iPhones in 2021. For a few companies, however, these supply chain woes may have an unexpected upside.

The manufacturing delays abroad and relentless demand for consumer electronics have turned into a windfall for some chipmakers in the United States. Even lesser-known American manufacturers with aging or secondhand equipment have seen a surge in sales for the legacy chips, or microcontrollers, they produce. These parts are inexpensive to make but are a critical component for many devices, and as supply chain troubles have affected larger companies that focus on more advanced technologies, demand for the more basic chips has grown. Flush with customers, the companies that make these microcontrollers are now on a spending spree to boost their overall manufacturing capacity.”

Why a global chip shortage is screwing up America’s pickup trucks

“Just 12 percent of global chip manufacturing is now based in the US, compared to the 37 percent share that the country had in 1990, according to research SIA conducted with the Boston Consulting Group. The primary reasons for this decline are, according to UCLA supply chain professor Christopher Tang, the low cost of production in other countries and chemical processes with less stringent regulation abroad.

“We never had a coordinated plan, meaning these are free markets. So any companies can ship anything outside the country,” Tang explained. “So now is a wake-up call. We have shifted virtually everything, so now it’s an empty vault.”

There are many ideas for how to boost high-tech manufacturing in the US. Some, like Tang, say that part of the key is boosting the number of US students who study STEM and creating more high-tech jobs in the field. Another strategy up for consideration is beefing up US “industrial policy,” which would have the government take a more active role in encouraging high-tech industries in the US, whether through tax benefits, direct investment in research, or government subsidies. In his presidential campaign, Biden even proposed wielding the government’s power to buy these supplies directly from US manufacturers. Now with his supply chain review, Biden appears to be taking a first step toward pursuing that goal.”

“In part, a Biden administration official told Politico, the goal is to ensure that the US isn’t too reliant on other countries and to make US-based supply chains more resilient. In his executive order calling for a review, Biden mentioned everything from another pandemic to a cyberattack to “climate shocks and extreme weather events” as examples of crises that could make it more difficult to get much-needed supplies in the future.”

“Following the supply chain review, the goal isn’t necessarily that the US produces all or even most of a particular product or its subcomponents, experts told Recode. Instead, it’s about making sure the country has stockpiles; coordinated supply chains of needed supplies and components from different parts of the world; and enough domestic manufacturing to ensure the US can weather another crisis.

But the task of building new high-tech manufacturing in the US would be a tall order.”