US chip dreams will fade without more immigrants

Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass the Chips and Science Act — but their persistent failure to unite behind common-sense, bipartisan reforms to bring more skilled immigrants to the U.S. puts this notable achievement in jeopardy.

Congress passed the law in 2022 to revive domestic semiconductor manufacturing and reduce dependence on fabrication plants in East Asia. On paper, the initiative is already a success: Nearly $30 billion in subsidies and $25 billion in loans have been awarded, supporting investments of roughly $350 billion. One industry-sponsored study expects U.S. chipmaking capacity to triple by 2032, with output of advanced logic chips rising from zero in 2022 to 28% of global production.

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To build and run those fabs, however, companies need workers the U.S. doesn’t have. Shortages of skilled installers of hyper-precise chipmaking equipment have already delayed projects. The number of Americans studying in relevant graduate programs has been flat for 30 years. A third of current fab workers are 55 and older, and more than half say they’re eager to quit. The Semiconductor Industry Association says chipmakers will face a shortfall of 67,000 skilled workers by 2030.

Congress needs to weigh the consequences. Companies that can’t scale up will demand additional subsidies or shift production to Taiwan and Japan. As domestic production struggles, the problem might get worse, as American STEM graduates seek work in other fields. The hoped-for benefits — U.S. technological leadership and enhanced national security — will come to nothing.

The Chips Act anticipated this difficulty. It includes a $200 million training and education fund, and it requires companies to prioritize workforce development. Colleges have announced new degree and certificate programs aimed at the semiconductor industry. But these efforts will take time to yield results. They won’t meet the industry’s immediate needs and will likely fail in the long term too if recruiters can’t hire more immigrants. U.S. citizens are a minority among STEM graduates with advanced degrees relevant to chipmaking.

The current immigration pipeline is no use. The much-maligned H-1B program is hugely oversubscribed every year. Caps on visas plus limits per country mean applicants from India, the likeliest source of new semiconductor workers, can wait decades for their status to be resolved.

Comprehensive immigration reform would be best, but failing that, here’s a good idea: the “chipmaker’s visa,” suggested by the Economic Innovation Group. It would auction a certain number of visas (say, 10,000 per year for 10 years) for high-skilled workers, subject to a salary minimum. Recipients could change jobs within the industry and would be offered an expedited path to permanent residency after working for five years. Proceeds from the auctions would help fund scholarships and workforce development programs for American students and workers.

That’s the minimum Congress should do. The shortage of STEM workers extends far beyond semiconductors. The U.S. should increase the overall number of visas for high-skilled immigrants, prioritizing applicants with in-demand STEM skills and exempting foreign graduates of U.S. schools with advanced STEM degrees from green-card caps. That last group, by itself, could provide enough workers to meet most of the need for semiconductor engineers.

—Bloomberg Opinion/TNS