Part of the reason for this skills gap is that people in the United States who already work in the semiconductor industry tend to have experience in chip design, not manufacturing. For years, many US companies ordered chips from contract manufacturers overseas, like the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, instead of embarking on the extremely expensive process of producing, testing and packaging chips themselves. But as geopolitical tensions with China ramped up, American leaders began to push to build some capacity to make advanced chips in the United States as an insurance policy in the event of a breakdown of trade.
To prepare for that day, the Trump administration pressured the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to build a fab on US soil capable of mass producing advanced chips. But finding people in Arizona, where the fab will be built, with the same skills and work ethic as exist at the company’s factory in Hsinchu has been a challenge, the company’s founder, Morris Chang, told a symposium last year.
Attracting highly skilled foreigners who can help train an American work force is essential to success, at least in the short term, according to the Center for Security and Emerging Technology report, which estimated that “at least 3,500 foreign-born workers will be required” to staff the new American fabs. Some could come from American universities, he said, but many would need to be recruited from Taiwan and South Korea.
The state of higher education in the field is also worrying. The number of American graduate students studying in semiconductor-related fields has remained almost flat since 1990, while foreigners enrolled in those fields at American universities have tripled. According to “Winning the Tech Talent Competition,” a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, only 23,000 Americans are expected to graduate with Ph.Ds in science, math, engineering and technology-related fields in 2025, while 17,000 foreign students in those areas will graduate from American universities.
It’s great that noncitizens are helping to close the yawning gap with China, which is estimated to graduate 77,000 Ph.Ds that year. But we can’t take foreign talent for granted. Since 2016, overall foreign enrollment in American universities has fallen every year, leading some to worry that foreign enrollment in semiconductor-related fields might also be at risk in the future.
Philip Wong, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, told me that the pull of the United States isn’t what it once was. Although bright students from Asia continue to flock to Stanford, he said, some of them pass up the chance to stay in America in favor of working in the vibrant tech industries closer to home. “They don’t need to come to the US to get a good career,” Mr. Wong told me. “If you look back several decades, the reasons for students to come to the US are starting to go away.”