Ashwin Chandwani was crestfallen when he lost the chance to work for Tesla. The electrical engineering student had reached the final stage of interviews when the electric car giant paused its hiring plans.
“At the time I was heartbroken,” the 27-year-old said. Chandwani started contacting recruiters, worried that he might have to leave the country if he couldn’t find a job.
He needn’t have worried. Employers were eager to interview him: He had three initial interviews within two days, before receiving an offer to work on power management systems for the semiconductor company Qualcomm in San Diego. And while he considers himself lucky, he is not alone: Of the classmates he kept in touch with, he says, “none of them is unemployed.”
Engineers like Chandwani are in high demand in the semiconductor industry, which makes the silicon circuits that drive everything from smartphones to washing machines. Strong subsidies are bringing microchip factories back to the U.S., but now comes the hard part: finding the workers to staff them.
The Biden administration has made semiconductors a national priority, after decades of relying on overseas foundries for the most advanced microchips. Last year, Congress enacted the CHIPS and Science Act, authorizing $53 billion in incentives for chipmakers that bring production back to the United States. Companies like Intel, Micron, and TSMC have announced over a dozen new fabrication facilities, or fabs, with over $210 billion in investments and 40,000 new jobs announced so far.
But in order for the U.S. to become more self-sufficient in semiconductor production, the number of highly skilled positions could nearly double by the end of the decade, according to an industry advisory committee for the National Institute for Standards and Technology. At the projected rates of growth and turnover, the workforce is expected to miss the mark by around 28%.
“If there’s no workers, there’s no industry,” said Sujai Shivakumar, an economist for the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has written about the consequences of relying on international suppliers. “There’s no ability of the United States to compete in emerging technologies.”
The most advanced semiconductors are manufactured in Taiwan, leaving the U.S. vulnerable to supply shocks and geopolitical turmoil. During the pandemic, prices of new vehicles soared due to the scarcity of automotive chips. That reliance on overseas suppliers could also pose a military threat since modern weapon systems rely on state-of-the-art microchips.
As with other manufacturing industries, the semiconductor workforce shrank when the U.S. began to rely on offshore manufacturers. The U.S. accounted for only 12% of global semiconductor production in 2021, down from over a third in 1990.
Offshoring production provided short-term savings in labor costs but allowed the domestic talent pool to stagnate. “If you lose innovation, it’s not just the fat you lose,” Shivakumar said. “You lose the muscle as well.”
Part of the problem is that semiconductors attract less attention than other parts of the tech world, such as software, said Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation. The nonprofit works to advance the shared interests of the industry, including workforce development.
“We’re a pretty invisible industry,” Liss said. “Everyone knows the Googles of the world.”
Industry experts attribute several factors in the current talent shortage: First, many workers are starting to age out, with 40% of the workforce aged 50 or older. Then there’s the problem of training their replacements when U.S. universities give out fewer advanced engineering degrees each year. It’s also getting harder to recruit young engineers to a field that often pays less than software development.
One way to fill that gap is with foreign specialists, like Chandwani, who immigrated from India. The industry has lobbied for semiconductor experts to get more favorable immigration treatment. Another avenue is through the military, since many veterans enter civilian life with valuable skills.
Manufacturers are also leaning on educational institutions, not only for engineers but also for the technicians and operators to keep the factories running. While some parts of the industry will always require advanced degrees, other roles can be filled more easily by “upskilling” existing workers.
Crystal Evans earned her associate’s degree in Electrical Engineering Technology from Mohawk Valley Community College this month. After class, she worked the night shift at Wolfspeed, making chips for electric vehicles.
Evans, who is Black, is one of two women of color on her shift, and feels that they have to struggle for recognition. “Some people don’t even realize I work there,” she said.
But learning about engineering allowed Evans to excel, even in duties outside of her job description. The forty-year-old technician is now entering a bachelor’s program and hopes to eventually get a master’s degree or even a Ph.D.
Such “nonlinear” education pathways are an important alternative to the traditional college route, according to Timothy Thomas, chief strategy officer at Mohawk Valley Community College. The college regularly works with employers like Wolfspeed and Indium Corp. to provide additional training to the existing workforce.
“Only a small subset of the population has the ability to take years out of their work life,” said Thomas, who helped Evans get started on her current career path. “That removed a huge subset of our population from being able to engage in these high-quality jobs.”
It also places additional barriers to entry in a field that is still heavily white- and male-dominated. The CHIPS Act includes several provisions to address institutional barriers within the semiconductor industry, and breaking those barriers could help expand the pool of available talent, Liss added.
“As an industry, we need to invest in that if we want to see this tide turn,” she said. “We are stuck in very old-school values in terms of how we operate in this industry, and that just needs to change. “