Every morning, Isaiah Morris drives his white Nissan Altima eight miles down Arizona state Route 101 to a sprawling, low-level office park in South Tempe. Inside one of the unassuming buildings adjacent to GoDaddy’s headquarters and a couple of Amazon offices, the Arizona State University student dons a lab coat, safety shoes and prescription goggles as he helps engineer chemicals for a chip manufacturing process called planarization.
Morris is an unusual 21-year-old. When they graduate college, many of his tech-minded peers will opt to work for the likes of Apple, Google and other household names that have enjoyed meteoric growth over the last decade. Jobs at those tech companies symbolize prestige for graduates and their parents in a way that careers with chipmakers like Intel do not.
But students like Morris are critical to the pledge made by federal lawmakers and President Biden to bring chip manufacturing back to the U.S. The success of that goal depends on persuading tens of thousands of future 21-year-olds to choose summer internships like Morris’ at EMD Electronics in places like South Tempe. If they fail, U.S. chipmakers will be unable to staff the massive new facilities they have promised to build, undercutting their promises to revive the U.S. industry and reduce dependence on foreign imports.
27,000 jobs and no one to fill them
To fuel the surging thirst for semiconductors, chip industry heavyweights such as Intel, TSMC and Samsung have pledged hundreds of billions of dollars for plans to build or expand factories around the world. U.S. chip businesses account for roughly half of the industry’s total revenue, yet only about 10% of the actual chips are manufactured in the United States. That’s because there are a handful of big companies such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and AMD that design chips but have outsourced manufacturing to South Korea or Taiwan. To elected officials, this is a problem.
Due to a combination of national-security interests and a desire to reduce the potential future impact of supply chain shocks, Congress and Biden have made clear that the U.S. would like it very much if some of those factories are built here, and have promised a package of $52 billion in subsidies to encourage companies to do so.
Though the money is stuck in congressional reconciliation for the moment, the promise of billions in handouts has helped spur new domestic fab construction by industry titans and smaller operators alike.
Just a few miles south of Morris’ EMD Electronics internship, construction has begun on Intel’s $20 billion project to expand its Ocotillo campus in Chandler by building two new manufacturing facilities, or fabs, to augment the existing four already producing chips at high volume. These new fabs will one day require the carefully engineered slurries — liquid solutions which help polish a silicon wafer between manufacturing steps — Morris is currently learning to formulate.
We don’t have RadioShack anymore.
In addition to the Ocotillo facilities, new planned fab projects include a 1,000-acre Intel campus with room for eight fabs in Ohio, a $12 billion TSMC campus in North Phoenix and a $17 billion Samsung fab in Austin, Texas, to name just a few. Nationwide expansion plans and related jobs could create as many as 27,000 new positions in the semiconductor industry over the next decade, according to research from scholars at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
If the first of these new fabrication plants open on schedule beginning in 2024, chip companies won’t be able to rely on U.S.-born students to fill the tens of thousands of available jobs in the first few years. Georgetown’s lead chip labor researcher, William Hunt, estimates that at minimum, 3,500 foreign-born students — mostly engineers from Taiwan and China — will need to immigrate and get specialty visas to staff the planned facilities.
Those visas are almost impossible to get under current immigration policies.
Semiconductors need a makeover
Companies such as Google and Apple are household names. For college students and their parents, they are status symbols that help fresh graduates with jobs at either organization pass the “mom and dad test,” as one chip executive put it. The likes of Intel and TSMC do not.
The number of students declaring computer science as their major has more than doubled since 2010 to over 40,000 last year, according to data from the Computing Research Association. In contrast, the quantity of chip-related degrees earned by American students has remained stagnant since the 1990s, according to Hunt’s research. Software engineering specifically was the eighth most-popular job for graduates immediately after college, according to Glassdoor’s 2021 data. Mechanical, electrical and civil engineering combined land at the 11th most-popular job.
“As you saw the dominance of manufacturing in semiconductors shifting to Korea, TSMC in Taiwan, stuff was drifting away from the U.S. Interest in fabrication, in actually making stuff, slowly slowly went down. People were saying, ‘Why would I want to get involved in this?’” said ASU electrical engineering professor Michael Kozicki. “Within electrical engineering, you’d see them shifting more into circuit design. Within engineering in general, you saw a big shift of people into software.”
To Rochester Institute of Technology semiconductor professor Santosh Kurinec, favoring software degrees over chip manufacturing mirrors a much larger, longer-term economic trend in the U.S: the gradual outsourcing of manufacturing to elsewhere around the world.
“I think the perception is that everything that's physical electronics, TVs or displays or sound systems, everything is made outside the U.S.,” Kurinec said. “We don’t have RadioShack anymore. And I think the perception of the decline of this, then it reinforces the decline.” At RIT, enrollment in semiconductor engineering declined dramatically as chip factories moved to other countries over the past 30 years, and has remained low ever since.
Intel employees in clean room "bunny suits" work at Intel's D1X factory in Hillsboro, Oregon. Credit: Intel Corporation
Morris knew he wanted to study engineering in high school, but so do many of the teenagers who end up as part of the rapidly expanding pool of software developers. However, Morris’ path diverted in college: Unlike most students, he was exposed to chip industry veterans through ASU’s student groups.
In what might be a hopeful sign for chipmakers trying to attract talent, the school’s physical proximity to Intel, TSMC and the manufacturing tool maker Applied Materials, as well as other chip-related businesses, has transformed many of its programs into pipelines as those companies announced expansion plans in the area.
“Nobody knows anything when they first get into this industry,” Morris said. “If you learn now, all of us are vital to this industry: You could really make yourself a niche or a home in a specific aspect where you could really excel.”
Kozicki, who started teaching at ASU in 1985, has seen his advanced semiconductor class fill up over the last few years for the first time in decades. He also offers a small summer course for 20 students that now fills completely, while he would have considered himself lucky to have six or so students in previous years.
“I would say that the trigger event was about three years ago, give or take; I’m sensing in terms of the kind of realization that it deserved people’s attention, three years ago was definitely something going on,” he said. “There were a lot of noises getting made three years ago about the return to the U.S. of manufacturing. The big companies were beginning to talk more about chips and design manufacturing.”
It’s that kind of exposure that will need to happen earlier and on a much grander scale if chip manufacturers have any hope of building the workforce they need. Kurinec recalled that NASA’s effort to explore the moon was one of the most important events that pushed her into the field.
“Why are most STEM kids interested in space stuff and NASA? They’re on the news and the TV all the time,” Kozicki said.
But it’s harder for chip companies to capture the world’s attention in a similarly compelling way.
The shortage has brought TV crews into fabs and generated some attention around the complexity, difficulty and cost of making modern semiconductors. But chipmakers aren’t going to allow college kids to run around a factory that relies on volatile chemicals, billions of dollars of equipment and major trade secrets. “You can’t just let people crawl around that,” Kozicki said.
It’s not enough to try and capture students’ attention once they get to college, according to several academics interviewed by Protocol. By that point, most might be concerned with mounting debt or will have selected schools without the strong industry ties that persuaded Morris.
Middle and high school kids understand software engineering and learn to code in their classrooms, but most don’t learn much about transistors or cleanrooms, or understand the work that goes into building them. That’s one of the biggest challenges of tapping into the talent pipeline early, especially because the limited pool of people with semiconductor expertise rarely teach children.
“I think it’s important to get people younger, get students interested even in the early stages of grade school, get them interested in STEM and show them the power of what can be accomplished in the semiconductor industry,” Jonathan Ashdown, the dean of STEM at Hudson Valley Community College, said. “We have to get students interested at a younger age. Sometimes when we try to get them involved in high school, they have competing priorities, and they don’t have the passion necessarily for it.”
The fight for talent
Earlier this June, Ashdown met with leaders at GlobalFoundries in Malta, New York, to discuss a significant gift. The company will be donating a $800,000 chemical vapor deposition system — one it’s retiring from its fab — to the college’s research facilities next door. In return, the school will train its students on the machine and then, ideally, send them to work at GlobalFoundries when they graduate.
Ashdown and GlobalFoundries leaders meet almost once a week to discuss the school’s training programs. While the two have had informal partnerships for years, HVCC became the educational provider for a formal Department of Labor apprenticeship program in 2020 that sends high school graduates to work at the Malta chip facility, which is in the process of expanding.
“At one point in time, there was a lot of pressure to graduate more. If they hired every single one of our students, there would still be a gap,” Ashdown said. “Now, they are hiring directly out of high school and putting these students in the apprenticeship program.”
I never would have thought on my life that I would be walking down the street in Columbus, Ohio, and see ‘Silicon Heartland.’
GlobalFoundries’ close relationship with the college benefits Hudson’s students, but it also cements a talent pipeline to the company’s New York fabs. Employees relocating from the West often don’t enjoy the upstate winters, meaning that many recruited from Silicon Valley or Arizona will get a taste of the climate and then leave after their two-year contracts are finished.
The entire chip industry is painfully aware that as it grows in the United States, these companies will be competing for young graduates not only with traditional software companies, but with each other. Recruiting is one of the reasons Intel picked Columbus, Ohio, for a new fab site: There are plenty of colleges producing engineers in the vicinity, but no other chipmaker has set its sights on the Midwest for factory operations.
“They’ve quantified this, they have an idea of what they are going to need to staff these fabs, and now that we know that, the state colleges, universities — public and private — and everybody can work toward that,” said Alan Chalker, the director of Strategic Programs for the Ohio Supercomputer Center.
The OSC will be responsible for helping the state’s colleges and universities get the resources they need with the planned Intel grants. Chalker said he is optimistic that Intel’s funding will make it possible to train enough local talent. He wants semiconductors to become the state’s ticket to revitalizing its neglected and dying manufacturing sector.
“I’ve been seeing people wearing shirts around now with the Silicon Heartland logo on it,” he said.“I never would have thought on my life that I would be walking down the street in Columbus, Ohio, and see ‘Silicon Heartland.’”
Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, has committed itself to helping provide that local Midwest talent; it launched a massive semiconductor degree program in May that will offer both a minor for undergraduates and a master’s degree. “When companies think about building a new chip fab somewhere, the first one or two things they think about is the people to staff these factories,” Purdue electrical and computer engineering professor Mark Lundstrom said.
But it’s Arizona, not Ohio or New York, that has become a true battlefield for new talent as Intel and TSMC race to complete new fabs. Those fabs make the world’s most advanced chips; they’re the hardest and most expensive to manufacture, and are those most likely to move the needle on U.S. domestic production.
Intel may have the home-field advantage: It’s operated in the Grand Canyon State for roughly 40 years and has already established pipelines with ASU and Maricopa County community colleges. TSMC does not have the benefit of 40 years of operations in Arizona, but a spokesperson said it is partnering with local schools and scouring the U.S. for enough talent — efforts that may be running into trouble.
Between all the companies battling for students, Morris can’t imagine going back home to Fair Lawn, New Jersey, for work or wanting to leave Arizona at all. “With the amount of opportunity that there is here, I don’t see myself needing to go. I truly feel like Arizona is the new hub for semiconductors right now,” he said. “There’s an easy place for you to find your home right now and make your little niche and honestly forge a really successful career going forward.”