Technical leadership in the semiconductor industry has been a cornerstone of U.S. military and economic power for decades. Semiconductor innovation is a key driver of progress in critical technologies such as artificial intelligence, while the Internet of Things has introduced ever-more sophisticated computer chips into everything from toasters to highways. But continued competitiveness is not guaranteed: top American firms face foreign competitors, often backed by concerted government support, in a number of high-value parts of the semiconductor supply chain.
To remain competitive and ensure access to secure and leading-edge computer chips, the United States will need to leverage one of its greatest strengths: its capacity to attract, develop, and retain the deepest bench of science and engineering talent in the world—both at home and from abroad. This report explores the composition of the talented workforce that undergirds continued U.S. leadership in the semiconductor industry, and assesses workforce policy options for protecting and promoting technological competitiveness going forward.
Based on original analysis of six different datasets and a range of secondary sources, this paper finds that:
- Semiconductors and semiconductor talent are of critical importance to the United States.
- U.S. semiconductor firms generate tremendous economic value; in 2018, their sales totaled more than $200 billion, capturing 45 percent of the global market.
- The United States benefits from a number of semiconductor talent clusters, including California’s Silicon Valley, New York’s Tech Valley, and Oregon’s Silicon Forest, which draw top technical talent and firms from around the world.
- In a 2017 survey, 91 percent of employers believed the industry would face a “critical” or “severe” shortage by 2020. Wages in the industry have grown 4.4 percent per year on average since 2001—significantly faster than wage growth in other engineering occupations and in the U.S. economy as a whole.
- Demand for high-skilled technical semiconductor talent is likely to remain high despite trends toward automation.
- The best estimates suggest that the U.S. semiconductor industry employs about 240,000 workers, spanning a diverse set of skills and positions from manufacturing to research and development (R&D).
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 10.6 percent overall decline in absolute employment numbers in the semiconductor industry between 2018 and 2028. Predicted job losses are concentrated in areas susceptible to automation—primarily in the lower-skilled parts of the workforce.
- Foreign talent contributes significantly to U.S. semiconductor innovation.
- Approximately 40 percent of high-skilled semiconductor workers in the United States were born abroad. India is the most common place of origin among foreign-born workers, followed by China.
- In 2011, 87 percent of semiconductor patents awarded to top U.S. universities had at least one foreign-born inventor. Between 2000 and 2010, the United States enjoyed a net influx of about 100,000 electrical engineering patent holders, while India and China saw large net outflows.
- While international talent is important to the health of the semiconductor industry, it has also played a role in building up competitors to U.S. companies.
- Top semiconductor companies abroad, such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), were founded and staffed by returnees who received their training in the United States.
- China seeks to attract semiconductor talent from abroad. So far, its success has been limited, and there is currently no evidence of significant talent outflow from the United States to China. But this does not mean there is no risk; even a small number of skilled returnees could help to accelerate China’s progress toward the cutting edge.
- U.S. universities are the main pathway by which foreign- born semiconductor talent comes to the United States.
- International students comprise around two-thirds of graduate students in electrical engineering and computer science, the top educational fields feeding into the U.S. semiconductor industry among green card applicants.
- The number of American students enrolled in semiconductor- related graduate programs (around 90,000) has not increased since 1990. In that same period, the number of international students nearly tripled from 50,000 to 140,000.
- More than 80 percent of international Ph.D. graduates from semiconductor-related fields at U.S. universities stay in the country after completing their degrees. Stay rates are highest among Indian and Chinese doctoral recipients.
- The semiconductor supply chain is highly specialized, and skill demands and workforce composition vary between different parts of the supply chain.
- The overwhelming majority of green card applicants sponsored by design firms earned their highest degree in either electrical and computer engineering or computer science.
- By contrast, green card applicants sponsored by manufacturing equipment suppliers and foundries have a much wider range of academic backgrounds. More than half held degrees in disciplines such as chemical and mechanical engineering, materials science, and physics.
- Across all parts of the supply chain, India was by far the most common place of origin among green card applicants, followed by China.
Workforce Policy Recommendations
Policymakers can protect and promote the competitiveness of the U.S. semiconductor workforce by strengthening the country’s talent pipelines:
- To prevent technology transfer, the U.S. government can bolster domestic protections and engage with allies and partners.
- Tools such as visa screening, deemed export licensing, and intellectual property and espionage enforcement can—if used judiciously—help protect semiconductor companies from employees with malicious intent. However, counter-transfer policies not focused on talent, such as foreign investment screening and enhanced cyber protections, are likely to do more to protect semiconductor technology while also posing less risk to U.S. competitiveness.
- Collaboration with allies and partners is crucial for controlling the flow of cutting-edge semiconductor talent and technology. South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are home to the most important semiconductor companies outside of the United States.
- To strengthen the U.S. semiconductor workforce, policymakers should invest in domestic education and research.
- Anticipating future technical challenges to semiconductor innovation, research and education investments should target a broad range of physical science and engineering fields and technologies. Funding can be allocated both to universities and to government-industry-academic partnerships.
- These investments should also be used to encourage more domestic students to do semiconductor-related graduate programs and to incentivize on-the-job training models through internship and apprenticeship programs.
- To continue attracting and retaining necessary international talent, policymakers should retain and strengthen the immigration pathways available to high-skill semiconductor workers.
- At minimum, policymakers should sustain immigration programs that are crucial to the semiconductor industry, such as the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. These programs have faced significant threats in recent years.
- Options for targeted or broad immigration reforms that would aid the semiconductor industry include eliminating country- based caps on green cards and increasing the number of available employment-based visas.
- To enable data-driven and targeted workforce policies, federal agencies should improve their semiconductor industry-related data collection.
- The Office of Management and Budget should alter its industry classification system to distinguish semiconductor firms from other electronic component manufacturers and to include chip design (“fabless”) firms within the semiconductor industry.
- The National Science Foundation should expand its surveys of U.S. university graduates to include master’s students, who make up a large proportion of future high-skilled semiconductor employees. Currently, the NSF only collects detailed data on Ph.D. graduates.