On Tuesday, President Joe Biden is slated to sign the CHIPS Act, a bill that aims to boost innovation and increase domestic production of semiconductor chips, which are a critical component of electronics, vehicles, and household appliances. The act will lob $52 billion in subsidies at chip producers, amounting to a massive transfer of taxpayer money in the name of reducing reliance on foreign suppliers.
"The bill will supercharge our efforts to make semiconductors here in America," said Biden of the CHIPS Act. "For the sake of our economy and jobs and costs and our national security, we have to make these semiconductors in America once again."
Ill-advised subsidies aside, there's reason to doubt that America has the talent necessary to produce semiconductors domestically. And that problem isn't something the CHIPS Act will be capable of fully solving since key immigration provisions were stripped from the final version.
The CHIPS Act borrows components from the America COMPETES Act, an expensive and jampacked bill that has since been abandoned. One thing the competitiveness-focused legislation got right was immigration, proposing favorable visa policies for foreigners with doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The CHIPS Act, unfortunately, contains no such provisions, even at a time when the U.S. could benefit from them.
"The U.S. currently does not produce enough doctorates and master's degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math fields who can go on to work in U.S.-based microchip plants," write Brendan Bordelon and Eleanor Mueller for Politico. "The U.S. now produces fewer native-born recipients of advanced STEM degrees than most of its international rivals."
According to a report from Eightfold AI, which runs a work force artificial intelligence platform,* the U.S. would need to fill between 70,000 and 90,000 fabrication jobs in order to have the numbers necessary for critical applications. And chipmakers are already struggling due to the insufficient availability of workers—the Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation had aimed to open a new chip fabrication facility in Arizona this September, but had to delay the opening by six months due in part to a labor shortage.
Though the CHIPS Act carries a hefty price tag, it'll do little to solve the underlying labor shortage that's stymying domestic production in the short term. All 17 of the semiconductor experts surveyed by the Government Accountability Office noted the need to implement work force development policies, and many specifically suggested immigration reform. The CHIPS Act's proponents argue that key provisions would help encourage native-born Americans to enter STEM fields and boost the semiconductor labor force down the road. But lawmakers intent on boosting chip manufacturing in the near future would be foolish to neglect foreign talent—much of which is already on American soil.
Allowing foreign-born students educated in STEM fields at American universities to stay in the country could help alleviate the labor shortages that semiconductor firms are facing. Bloomberg points out that since 1990, the number of foreign-born graduate students specializing in programs related to semiconductor production has almost tripled. But their options to stay in the U.S. are often limited, and the visa pathways they're directed toward are incredibly backlogged. As of 2021, there were 1.4 million cases in the employment-based visa line. "We are seeing greater and greater numbers of our employees waiting longer and longer for green cards," David Shahoulian, head of work force policy at Intel, told Politico. "At some point, you'll just see more offshoring of these types of positions."
Solving those delays is all the more critical given the clear present need for foreign workers. "Even with significant recruitment from other industries and from academia, thousands of new jobs will remain vacant unless the industry is empowered the recruit top talent from abroad," notes Jeremy Neufeld of the Institute for Progress, drawing from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology's research.
Foreigners already make up large shares of the sectors that contribute to semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S., meaning that expansions of that work force will realistically need to involve immigration reform. Otherwise, foreign talent will simply land in countries with more favorable immigration policies. The CHIPS Act is a costly and imperfect piece of legislation, but the lack of immigration reform stands out as one of its major misses.
*CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to update the description of Eightfold AI.