Meaning |  The US is lagging behind in the competition for “Oil” in the 21st century

Meaning | The US is lagging behind in the competition for “Oil” in the 21st century

Part of the reason for this skills gap is that people in the US already working in the semiconductor industry tend to have experience in chip design, not manufacturing. For years, many American companies ordered chips from overseas contract manufacturers, such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, rather than embark on the extremely expensive process of manufacturing, testing and packaging chips themselves. But as geopolitical tensions with China rose, U.S. leaders began pushing to build some capacity to make advanced chips in the U.S. as an insurance policy in case of trade disruptions.

To prepare for that day, the Trump administration pushed the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to build a factory on American soil capable of mass-producing advanced chips. But finding people in Arizona, where the factory is to be built, with the same skills and work ethic found 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 workforce is critical 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 needed ” to staff the new American factories. Some may come from American universities, it says, but many must be recruited from Taiwan and South Korea.

The state of higher education in the field is also worrying. The number of US graduate students studying in semiconductor-related fields has remained nearly flat since 1990, while foreigners enrolled in these fields at US 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 doctorates in science, mathematics, engineering and technology-related fields by 2025, while 17,000 foreign students in these fields will graduate from American universities.

It’s great that non-citizens are helping close the yawning gap with China, which is estimated to produce 77,000 PhD graduates that year. But we cannot take foreign talent for granted. Since 2016, total foreign enrollment at US universities has declined each year, leading some to worry that foreign enrollment in semiconductor-related fields may also be at risk in the future.

Philip Wong, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, told me that America’s push is not what it once was. Although bright students from Asia continue to flock to Stanford, he said, some are forgoing the chance to stay in America in favor of working in the vibrant tech industry closer to home. “They don’t need to come to the United States to have a good career,” Mr. Wong told me. “If you look back several decades, the reasons why students come to the United States are starting to disappear.”

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