The global contest for semiconductor talent

The new U.S. push to dominate in making computer chips only helps drive a deeper understanding of the sources of innovation.

Semiconductor chips on a circuit board of a computer

Like China before it, the United States has officially launched a talent search to make sure it dominates an industry that lies at the heart of the world economy: the design and manufacturing of semiconductors. Those tiny logic paths with endless uses are the essence of every digital device – about 7,000 new ones are added to the internet every minute – from intelligent toasters to Apple’s latest smartwatch.

On Sept. 6, the Biden administration announced how it will spend $52 billion approved by Congress in the CHIPS and Science Act signed by the president last month. While the new law provides money to help build more semiconductor plants in the U.S., the long-range spending will go to broaden the talent pipeline of scientists, engineers, and others needed to create the next generations of ever-smaller, smarter computer chips. A new National Semiconductor Technology Center, for example, will try to coordinate decisions among government, academia, and the industry on what skills, training, and incentives are needed to create yet-unknown types of semiconductors. 

The issue for this $600 billion worldwide industry is not only a shortage of trained workers but also debates over what the sources for innovation and inventiveness are. The world is in a “talent race,” says Patrick Wilson, a vice president at chipmaker MediaTek, to give brilliant men and women the environment that they need to succeed in designing new technologies.

The competition for talent, especially between China and the U.S., is fierce. Semiconductors are seen as vital to national security as naval ships and nuclear missiles. Countries from Singapore to Britain have poured resources into creating regional “hubs” of tech innovation, subsidizing startups, and attracting foreign researchers to their labs. Yet despite this competition, nations also know that numbers and money are less important than creating a mental environment of freedom and openness that sees scientific imagination as an unlimited resource, able to break material constraints and the boundaries of human thought.

Creativity “is not a stock of things that can be depleted or worn out, but an infinitely renewable resource that can be constantly improved,” notes the authors of the 2015 Global Creativity Index. 

The global contest for talent in the semiconductor industry may be heating up. Yet by inventing new ways to attract and keep talented workers, the contest itself only helps expand the notion that there is no limit to talent. 

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