Biden has big plans for semiconductors. But there’s a big hole: not enough workers

 In Employment


Liam Levinson spent the past few years working in restaurant kitchens where he says “they work you to the bone” for not enough pay. So, when the 28-year-old came across an article in a tech magazine about a potential boom in Arizona semiconductor jobs, he was intrigued.

“It involves two elements I’m very comfortable with,” said Levinson. “I’m very tech savvy and I’ve also been in the restaurant industry, which is just hands-on work for long periods of time.”

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So, he signed up for a 10-day boot camp at Chandler Gilbert Community College in Mesa, Ariz., a crash course aimed at quickly training thousands of new entry-level semiconductor technicians.

It’s one of over 50 community college programs that have sprung up around the nation, responding a boom in the industry connected to President Biden signing the CHIPS and Science Act into law last year.

President Biden holds up a microchip at a White House event on Feb. 24, 2021. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The goal of the law is to dramatically boost U.S. production of semiconductor chips — the tiny electronic devices found in everything from cars to cell phones to military weapons. The vast majority of chips currently are made in Asia.

The law gives the Biden administration $52.7 billion to pour into semiconductor plants. This month, it rolled out its first investment: $35 million for defense contractor BAE Systems Inc. to expand a semiconductor plant in Nashua, N.H.

These kinds of investments and the jobs they create are a big part of President Biden’s economic pitch for his reelection campaign. But there’s a major hurdle to turning expansion plans into reality — currently, there are not enough workers to fill those jobs.

“As these big investments come, we need the people,” said Shari Liss, executive director of the SEMI Foundation. She oversees the microelectronics industry’s efforts to boost workforce development.

“If we don’t have the people, that’s going to be a huge problem, that’s the fear.”

Boot camps can help train technicians

To meet the expected demand, the White House says the United States needs 90,000 to 100,000 more semiconductor technicians — and needs to triple the number of engineering grads — by 2030. The engineering shortage could be as high as 300,000 by the end of the decade, according to a report from consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

One attempt to fill the gap is the community college program in Arizona’s Maricopa County, where Liam Levinson is learning what it means to be a semiconductor technician.

On the third night of class, teacher Jeff Bruchhauser handed out Tyvek bunny suits — coveralls, gloves, booties, hair nets and safety glasses.

The students handled wrenches and washers, trying to complete group labs, all while wearing these somewhat claustrophobic white space suit-looking outfits.

Students work in teams, handling washers, wrenches and bolts while dressed in the kind of gear worn inside clean rooms in semiconductor plants.

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Caitlin O’Hara for NPR

“It was sweaty,” Levinson said, but he took solace in hearing that it’s generally cooler in the clean rooms where technicians wear these suits to prevent contamination.

“This is more to give you an idea of what it feels like to be working in the environment with something on your body on top of the clothes you already have,” Bruchhauser explained.

Bruchhauser spends his days working as a semiconductor technician at Intel, and his evenings teaching this class to train and create the next generation of semiconductor technicians.

Jeff Bruchhauser works at Intel during the day, and teaches a 10-day course in the evenings at Chandler Gilbert Community College to train more semiconductor technicians.

Caitlin O’Hara for NPR

The curriculum was devised with the help of Intel. The college created lessons based on what chip companies said they needed in their job descriptions. To date, roughly 770 students have completed the course. The college did not provide information on what percentage of its graduates are now employed in the semiconductor industry.

Perla Lugo, 34, used the boot camp course to help land a full-time job at Intel. She said she was initially intimidated by the tight 10-day timeline. “I was a little bit scared — I’m like, ‘How am I going to get this done in two weeks?'” she said.

Perla Lugo, 34, landed a job as a semiconductor technician at Intel. She completed the 10-day semiconductor boot camp at a Maricopa County community college.

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Asma Khalid/NPR

A lot of the information, like how to use a compressor and measure voltage, was new to Lugo, who until recently had been a stay-at-home mom of three. But she was enticed by the school’s promise that the course was free for students who passed it. “There’s a lot of opportunities with [the] technology growing as fast as it is,” Lugo said. “I think the future, it’s going to be great, but we have a lot to learn still.”
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