For years, Wyatt Hajda filled medical prescriptions at a veterinary pharmacy in Scottsdale, Arizona. Eventually, at age 32, he reached the maximum hourly pay rate of $23 per hour for someone at his position. With little or no future growth prospects in his job, and little chance to save for retirement, he began to look around for options.
Hajda heard about a two-week training program that would qualify him for an entry-level position in one of the largest and most profitable manufacturing industries in the world, where the pay range is higher than average: the semiconductor industry. It seemed too good to be true, but it was true. The program is part of a multi-state effort to meet the growing workforce demands of the growing semiconductor industry.
“That’s the goal right there,” Hajda said. “I could probably start putting money away for retirement.”
Hajda, who joined a training program in April, is one of thousands of workers across America planning to work in semiconductor manufacturing facilities, many still under construction or at the planning stages, that will provide a jolt to local economies by creating jobs in a broad range of different fields and areas of specialization. These areas include construction and education.
“[Semiconductors] are at the very foundation of useful computing and that includes everything including AI and whatever else comes afterwards. It’s a core component of everything that we call smart now,” Shiu Kai Chin, professor at the College of Engineering & Computer Science at Syracuse University, said.
The rollout of conditions to access a pool of $52 billion in subsidies from the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act of 2022 (CHIPS Act), signed into law on August 9, was the latest development in the effort to bring the bolster domestic semiconductor manufacturing. The conditions, which include hiring construction unions to build new facilities and use domestic iron and metal, didn’t seem to deter companies.
China and Taiwan produce about 90 percent of the most advanced semiconductors of the world.
There were 15 new construction projects in 2022 in 8 different states like Arizona, Ohio, and New York. Intel and Micron are two of the largest semiconductor manufacturers behind those projects. Other states include Oregon, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina and Texas according to the 2022 State of the U.S. Semiconductor Industry report.
Last year, Intel sought 7,000 construction workers for its project in Ohio and plans to employ 3,000 people once it's completed in 2025. Micron’s project, whose construction will begin in 2024, would create more than 50,000 jobs in the town of Clay and its surrounding communities including suppliers, contractors, and other supporting roles and 9,000 high paying jobs averaging over $100,000 per year.
There are initiatives to prepare the workers for assembly lines and more sophisticated roles at the new facilities. Many of the details are worked out with the states and companies.
In Arizona for example, where Intel is expanding its plant in the town of Chandler, the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) started a 10-day program for entry-level semiconductor factory positions called the Semiconductor Technician Quick Start program. The program is offered at the three community colleges that are part of the MCCCD at no cost if the student passes the course.
A few semiconductor companies, including Intel, approached MCCCD to develop the program.
Students learn basic operations, how to handle different tools and safety procedures required to work in a clean room environment and wear “bunny suits” (a protective clothing that keeps human bacteria from infecting the chip-making process).
Graduates aspire to initial hourly wages ranging from $20 to $25 according to the district’s website. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the average hourly wages as $23.25 but estimates that ten percent of all semiconductor technicians earn $34.63.
Hajda is one of 12 students who graduated from the boot camp style program at Chandler Gilbert Community College on April 28. But learning doesn’t stop upon completion of the program.
Companies then conduct their own dedicated training at their facilities, Nicholas Sevaaetasi, 40, said. Sevaaetasi, a veteran who served 20 years in the Air Force as a mechanic technician and later as a supervisor, is another graduate from the quick start program. He is now divided between working for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) at their plant in Phoenix, California or a position as a supervisor technician at Luke Air Force Base.
Educational institutions are also working on plans to boost their engineering curriculum to meet the future demand for engineers.
In central New York, for example, over 20 colleges joined forces to fund the Northeast University Semiconductor Network to provide the workforce for the new Micron plants. Their goal is to collaborate in the modernization of its existing STEM curriculum that already includes semiconductor-related engineering fields. Micron will begin the construction of the state’s first microchip plant ever, with a price tag of $100 billion in a span of two decades.
Companies and small businesses that provide materials or services are also on board. In Ohio, the Small Business Administration held a networking event last month to inform businesses about ways to partner with Intel.
These businesses include sales marketing, construction facilities, materials, security, furniture providers, human resources, and café services.
Chemtrade, a producer of highly sulfuric acid which is a critical component of the manufacturing of semiconductors, announced an investment of $50 million in Cairo, Ohio to increase production of the chemical by 60 percent. The company is the largest producer of the acid which is used to clean the chips in its final stages.
“These things are happening, it’s an exciting time to be not only in the trades but everything that goes along with it,” Mike Knisley, the Executive Secretary-Treasury for the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council, said.
Local communities will have to expand to accommodate the influx of workers.
Shortly after the groundbreaking ceremony of Intel’s plant in New Albany, Ohio, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce published an open letter in mid-March citing the need for affordable housing in the state and the different measures by state leaders and localities to address the issue. One of the measures includes the allocation by Governor Mike DeWine of “$400 million over four years to tax credits for affordable multifamily housing, and $200 million to build affordable single-family homes.” Residents in Franklin County voted to approve $200 million for affordable housing for Ohio.
The deficit between demand for housing and supply grew from 2021 and 2022 nationwide. For single family houses there’s a shortage of 6.5 million homes. And when multi-family home construction is factored in, the U.S. is short 2.3 million homes according to data by Realtor.com.
But the U.S. is not alone in its efforts to invest in microchips. Europe also passed its version of the CHIPS act. It’s not clear if companies will adhere to the conditions from Congress to access billions in subsidies, but the stakes are high.
Improving the production of semiconductors would also break the reliance on international manufacturers and prevent another stall in global production like the one seen during the pandemic. From a military perspective it would strengthen and ensure its production for sophisticated equipment that gives the country an edge against adversaries.
“Having a fully integrated supply chain is crucial and it'll take a long time for us to get there,” Professor Shiu Kai Chin said. “But this is certainly a start and that's a global strategic advantage.”