back to article One problem with America's chip ambitions: Not quite enough staff

Last week, TSMC postponed production at its under-construction Arizona chip fab until at least 2025 because it said it couldn't find enough skilled workers to complete the facility. This could be a sign of things to come. Judging from a report this month by US trade group the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and UK- …

  1. ethindp

    Maybe if the employers were the ones writing the job descriptions and posting them instead of HR, these foundries might have a lot of applicants. But instead every corporation is pretending like we're in a recession when we aren't, and HR is writing job descriptions without actually understanding any of the technical terminology. Well, and many companies want gods for employees and are throwing out unrealistic job reqs. I have absolutely zero sympathy for these companies. Maybe if they wanted realistic things they might actually get somewhere.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Problem is, if your Personnel Department has metastasised into HR then it is usually too late.

      There is no chance for the engineering teams to write their own staff requirements: if they even try then they'll be denied a Time Code and without that they can't complete the Time Sheets and it is Game Over.

      HR can't be bargained with.

      1. chasil

        TSMC management in Arizona

        There have been two fatalities in the construction effort so far. There is also a lack of clarity from the management organization.

        This may be an ongoing problem with U.S. operations.

        "People were told that there was an active-shooting drill, and they were running, and [told] to evacuate the area. So our guys got out of the area. And they found out later that it was a gas leak. And they were just trying to hide that. So no one trusts them."

        https://prospect.org/labor/2023-06-22-tsmc-semiconductor-factory-phoenix-accidents/

    2. Headley_Grange Silver badge

      I've never worked for a company in the UK where HR writes job or people specs without at least talking to the team that needs them. When I ran engineering teams (aerospace HW and SW development) I wrote the specs with the heads of the relevant teams, HR added their stuff, but I had final say and I did the first interviews with the engineering leads. HR did the recruitment and only got involved in the second interviews when we were talking to people who'd got through the first round. There's no way I'd have taken on an engineer who I didn't think could do the job, never mind one I'd never met - my pay and career depended on them, FFS

      Is it really the case in the US that HR does all this without involving the engineers?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Two problem: volume and competence.

        To hire someone who actually has active competence in the area of hiring is costly, adding some cheap people who are basically glorified administrators and buying a system that alleges to do the job for them is cheaper. That is has a profound impact on the quality of the people you so employ (because, let's face it, you will mainly get people who know how to game the system) appears not to matter much - and the results are clear to see. But boy, do they go through CVs quickly!

        1. Headley_Grange Silver badge

          TBH you sound more like someone who's had a couple of bad run-ins with HR than someone who's got hands-on experience of engineering recruitment.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            I've been on both sides, and I'm now facing the interesting task of finding HR people who are capable to read between the lines of a CV instead of trusting software to do the job. Yes, there is a cost associated with it (mostly the need for more HR staff), but the payback is more capable people, and that adds more to the bottom line than the cost of extra HR staff.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Interesting question: who recruits HR people? AI?

              :)

      2. ethindp

        I'm pretty sure that's the case, yes. You wouldn't believe the number of "entry-level" jobs I've found that require 5-10 years of experience. A job that requires that much experience is not an entry-level position at all. I can only see two possibilities for that: either HR is writing the JDs and requirements, and has absolutely no idea what they're talking about, and they aren't actually communicating with the employer for that position; or the employer is incredibly incompetent and magically expects a fresh college graduate to just "somehow" acquire a decade of experience. (I've also seen jobs that require 2-4 years, but that's still bad -- how is a college graduate supposed to get that?) It's even worse though because there are many jobs that I've seen that indicate that experience in college doesn't count as experience. The vast majority of internships are either unpaid, require you to be actively seeking a degree, or both, and I, for one, would like to be getting paid for my work and would like to avoid trying to get a job every 3-6 months, particularly since I already have a degree.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      There's also the problem that the educational system is too costly for most, and those that /can/ afford it either end up with a life long debt or (if they're really rich) buy their way through and thus do not exactly contribute to the available pool either because they don't actually acquire the required knowledge.

      Education has become just another money spinner over there, instead of realising that education is an investment in the very future of a nation. And sadly, that money idea has spread. Student loans to get to MSc level easily hit £60k so students start their life up to their neck in debt, and debt has a habit of metastasizing when not addressed - which I think to be the whole aim of the exercise. Can't have the /smart/ ones run the country, after all.

      There's also the additional problem already identified here by people: HR. Education and certification are easy tick boxes to verify for HR people whose competence appears to be restricted to box ticking and automation (to counter the apparent brutal lack of actual usable skills), but it omits a vast number of people who have experience, were home schooled or educated themselves and thus need little time to become functional in a company. Experience is apparently no longer wanted, because that is expensive.

      The challenge here is that /acquiring/ that experience is also costly - and taking in youngsters because they're cheap means that the company who does so will pay for that experience itself..

      In short, it's a mess, and mostly self inflicted. Evidence that those steering education are also not that hot..

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "instead of realising that education is an investment in the very future of a nation"

        Ah this is where you are wrong. The teachers and their unions know this very well which is why they are filling the classrooms with utterly useless drivel like CRT and gender ideology in order to turn out more activists. As long as there is a good supply of otherwise unemployable easily manipulated young people the revolution can continue.

        1. ecofeco Silver badge

          Speaking of drivel...

        2. martinusher Silver badge

          That's a tad reflexive, IMHO. There is a tendency to fill out education with General Education courses, its been a headache since at least my undergraduate years, but its not trendy stuff like CRT or "gender studies". (If you want to get hot 'n heavy in this area try getting a teaching credential in the US.....)

          The Fox Newses of this world like to fix blame on the usual suspects -- "teachers and their unions" -- but realistically its the system. In the US it starts in high school where to get the courses needed to go for engineering and science degrees you've got to be creative because there's just not enough time in the eight semesters of courses to study the required material. Once you do get into higher education then the first two years of study will be 'General Education" with your actual degree course taking up the final two years. This isn't long enough to get a basic level of competence -- especially as the expectation of the student is that they'll be oven-ready for a six figure salary on graduation -- so you have to enroll in a master's program to get anywhere. The UK has been aping the US system for the last couple of decades so not surprisingly its getting the same sorts of results. Its small wonder that most students go for the 'soft' stuff. Still, its easier to blame it on some nebulous entity rather than see the problem and -- gasp! -- maybe even fix it.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The trade body offered three recommendations

    "... creating opportunities for more to do so ..."

    Does that include helping to pay the tuition fees for anyone?

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: The trade body offered three recommendations

      Of course not! That's just crazy commie talk!

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How are salaries?

    It's no secret that pay for software engineers in the US have been boosted by the likes of Google and Facebook. By now competent comp sci students can expect a six-digit figure as first salary, plus bonus and stock, if they go into software. How do the salaries for chip makers compare?

    1. chuckufarley Silver badge

      Re: How are salaries?

      How do the salaries for chip makers compare?

      Maybe some where near the same ratio between automobile engineers and automobile mechanics?

      1. chuckufarley Silver badge
        Coffee/keyboard

        Re: How are salaries?

        Also:

        Stop posting as AC for Gordon Moore's sake!

        If you have something to say be proud of it. If not just down those that post what you know you should have said. After all El Reg is just Reddit 0.25 because not only did it come first but...you can also downvote with no consequences.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: How are salaries?

          Stop posting as AC for Gordon Moore's sake!

          Oh, here we go again.

          "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

          Why do you need a name? Judge a comment on its merit, not on who makes the statement or whatever they said before (the flipside of that is that a comment should indeed stand on its own). And no, I made none of the posts above but this whining about anon posts really has to stop. Just keep in mind that in this forum, anon does not mean irresponsible because you can't post

          BTW, my reasons for posting anon are also private :)

    2. Lurko

      Re: How are salaries?

      A further problem for the US is the loss of talent of young people wanting to be lawyers, and in almost all markets the low number of girls who aspire to a career in ICT or engineering. Part of these early preferences is culture - how many films show engineers in a good light? Now think of the endless "crusading lawyer" garbage that fills the screens, showing that lawyers are glamorous, successful, rich, and following a strong moral code to get justice (hah!).

      Where's the TV series or films showing ICT or engineering as heroes, problem solvers, interesting likeable people? Where's the role models for ICT? Most of the real world names of ICT that come to mind aren't role models, they're just controversial megalomanic nutters who've got obscenely rich through a business that found a new opportunity to grow to a dominant size, and then sit on that dominance (possible the megalomanic has sold out on the way, but the character doesn't change). Even when you get a film about ICT/engineering it's invariably about loners and flawed genii with probable personality disorders or mental health issues. Where's the SUCCESSFUL films about the founders of Intel, about Tim Berners-Lee, about Vinton Cerf, Heilmeier, Hilsum, Schadt & Helfrich, Torvalds, etc etc. You could extend that to the technologists behind lithium batteries, emissions control systems, what about the Dutch pioneers who laid the foundations for both Bluetooth and Wifi?

      Seems to me that the people who truly fashioned the modern world work in the shadows. If you know where to look you find their names, but in ICT it's difficult to build a big f*** off bridge with your name carved on it. Arguably Torvalds has done just that, but even so where's the blockbusting film?

      1. Clausewitz4.0 Bronze badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: How are salaries?

        "but even so where's the blockbusting film?"

        Engineers hate Hollywood. Kill them all.

      2. asdfasdfasdfasdf

        Re: How are salaries?

        That used to be Star Trek, but there hasn't been any Star Trek since the mid 90s....

      3. Lyndon Hills 1
        Joke

        Re: How are salaries?

        but even so where's the blockbusting film?

        The Social Network?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: How are salaries?

      200K software jobs lost in 2023.

  4. DS999 Silver badge

    I doubt that's the whole story

    When TSMC announced those plans their fabs were full, everything from leading edge to ancient processes. They were able to raise prices (before inflation arrived) simply because they had more demand than supply.

    That is no longer true, and TSMC has slack capacity for some of the leading edge nodes. Being in a rush to build even more capacity doesn't make sense, so they probably want to pull back a bit and "we can't find workers" makes for a convenient excuse. Maybe it is partly true, but that's clearly not the sole reason. Intel sure doesn't seem to be worried about it with their new fabs in Ohio.

  5. chuckufarley Silver badge
    Coat

    It's not my fault...

    ...because I am not that one that has been hyping Blockchain and Kubernetes and Cloud and AI for the past 10 years.

  6. trevorde Silver badge

    Better career choices

    * Instagram influencer

    * Tik Tok sensation

    * pr0n star

    * CEO of Twitter

    OK, maybe not that last one

    1. Korev Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Better career choices

      * CEO of Twitter

      X-CEO of Twitter surely...

    2. Sandstone

      Re: Better career choices

      You forgot Gender Studies major.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nobody is Commenting on The Elephant in the Room

    My wife just saw this headline and reminded me that this was my main problem with the Chip Push and Subsidy when it was announced. There was no chance that we could find the number of workers needed within the US to staff the facilities. I had asked her then if we were going to import the thousands of laborers for the facilities because there was not enough time to train people to take up these jobs. This is a problem not only with CHIP production but even something as simple as iPhone assembly. I reminded her that Steve Jobs when asked about producing devices in the US said it was not possible because it required 30000 Industrial Engineers and we just don't have the capacity. He flatly noted "Those jobs aren't coming back"

    So my question is "Why the surprise by this headline"

    Our problem as a society is that at the moment policy is being dictated by the section of the population with the lowest possible level of intelligence, and that is on both the left and right. Proper policy means long term planning. It takes time to change the educational and other factors that get us to this state. Instead we just keep shouting anti China stuff into the wind and there are no transformative policies being implemented. Only knee jerk policies to get our politicians through the next primaries.

    1. Headley_Grange Silver badge

      Re: Nobody is Commenting on The Elephant in the Room

      The reason the iPhone assembly jobs aren't coming back is that, even ignoring the costs of building the plant and training people, Apple would either have to increase the price and lose market share or take a margin hit to cover the higher wages and taxes. The stock market would punish them by hitting their share price in either case and, for some reason, that's important enough for Apple never to consider it unless they were forced to by legislation. The tub-thumping politicians are bright enough to talk about Made-in-<insert your country> but realize that if it ever happened they'd get killed in polls for making things much more expensive for the consumers who vote for them.

  8. spoofles

    Crap

    Title should read: "One problem with America's chip ambitions: Not quite enough staff - willing to work to death for crap pay".

    Its the same whine from big tech, so they can twist politicos arms a little more to let in even more crap outsourced labor.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Crap

      There. There is never a staffing problem, only a wage problem.

  9. CapeCarl

    (2B || !2B) // Good career $PATH? Oh, you want to sleep at night

    My IT career started in 1978. It wasn't until 1994 that I was "given" a SkyPager and "asked" (ok told) to respond 24x7 IF said pager buzzed.

    Hmmm all (most?) IT(ish) jobs for the past 30 years assume that one will respond, and handle, issues well beyond the nominal 40-hour work week.

    -----

    Per C C Wei (hmmm I almost typed "cc -c" by mistake), head of TSMC, said Americans at chip plants will want to wait until the morning before responding to a down production tool issue (not an issue in Taiwan where it seems that one is chained to tools you are responsible for)...And yes, I do understand the want to keep a $multi-B foundry running 24x7.

    Yeah this is all somewhat tangential to this topic, but once the biz-tech world went to 24x7 expected uptime, the assumption seemed to be that the labor cost to back that up was free or almost free.

    https://finance.yahoo.com/news/chip-maker-tsmc-needs-hire-100000012.html

    - Carl

    PS1: Is it true that right before you die, all the mismatched parens in your code and conversations pass before your eyes? (crap, I took a Lisp course in college).

    PS/2:: IF reading this in Florida: Ron, my title is implicitly dereferencing "Thespians" (not any "ians" that may offend you).

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: (2B || !2B) // Good career $PATH? Oh, you want to sleep at night

      Have my upvote.

  10. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Whats

    also been forgotten is not only do you need the comp.sci grads for this sort of projects, but the highly skilled engineers like wot I is to actually manufacture the bits to make the fab in the first place.

    You think a high spec gas tight door with internal and seal purge system falls off the back of a truck at a moments notice I have a bridge you can buy, they have to be made and us manufactures are still catching up with the delays caused by covid(I love dealing with medical stuff... not) and covid has caused a lot of staff to either go 'arrgh' or say "f*** it I'm outa here"

    But of course this isn't a problem since engineering training programs are so well staffed and fund oh....... along with the R&D budget , the training budget went as well to increase profits and the CEO's bonus(this is not a problem for that CEO but the next one when he/she finds no new staff and no new products coming through)

    But hey....... we can import staff................ if only there were some to be had H1B visas coming through... lots of them and some of those will be qualified(hopefully)

    I'm old and 7yrs off retirement and thought I'd seen a lot of lousy decisions made... but theres still time to see even more

  11. martinusher Silver badge

    Kind of inevitable

    There's been a 'skills shortage' for at least 25 years in the US. We've got away with not rolling enough of our own by importing them but the package isn't attractive enough these days -- its what comes from taking exceptionalism for granted.

    We can breed politicians and lawyers (often the same thing) like rabbits. Engineers take a bit more effort; they're expensive to train and require a decent career path, not one where they're likely to be reduced to penury by a spreadsheet. Working for a Big Company is just not an attractive career option unless you can get on a management track.

    (Anyway, as everyone knows moving to Phoenix is a) expensive and b) hotter than Hell in the summer. Its an awful place to move to, a City of Last Resort. The Spreadsheet will place the plant there ignoring the human toll (its real, believe me) so -- surprise -- its difficult to attract qualified staff.)

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Isn't it funny how the shortage of tech personnel almost always comes in at about 70,000?

    If that's true why is the compensation offered not rising?

    I have been an electronic engineer for decades working in various industries. I haven"t seen a surge in salary anytime.

    Some of the job descriptions are for engineers with many years of experience in very specific area. Checking the salary reveals an entry level or early career compensation package.

    This is a signal that the company is laying the groundwork to say no American is available to fill the requirement.

    If the company is really serious and there is a real shortage, why not offer help in schooling or in house training to elevate the skill level?

    1. HausWolf

      My Dog man, think of the shareholders, you up compensation you lower the dividend.

  13. Greg 38

    Apparently there's no shortage now

    As someone who has over 14 years engineering experience in fabs (including Intel) and a doctorate in electrical engineering, I spent 3 months looking for a chip job this summer only to find the job openings were for companies that had put hiring freezes in place. I finally took a took at a new EV battery company and will leave the semiconductor industry completely behind. I don't want to hear companies moaning about a worker shortage down the road when they won't invest in staff now.

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