The CHIP Act’s next-generation ambitions require a modern workforce

January 4, 2023

  1. Innovation
  2. Regulation
5 minutes

This op-ed orginially appeared in The Hill.

For 80 years, research and scientific advancement funded by the U.S. government has been a critical source of America’s global leadership in technology and innovation and has supported large-scale national achievements like winning World War II, splitting the atom, and landing men on the moon.

But in recent decades, America’s commitment to publicly-funded science has waned. After peaking in 1964, federal research and development investment as a percentage of GDP and federal outlays steadily declined, falling to the lowest level in 60 years in the fiscal year 2019.

That changed when President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, following passage with strong bipartisan support. The act invests $280 billion to bolster R&D, secure America’s access to the advanced semiconductors that power everything from smartphones to fighter jets and create 20 regional innovation hubs.

The legislation comes not a moment too soon. For decades, China has been working to wrest global innovation leadership from the United States. The Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, the Made in China 2025 manufacturing plan and the China Standards 2035 blueprint are critical aspects of China’s ambition to be the 21st century’s unrivaled economic superpower.

America’s response by way of the CHIPS Act: “Game on.”

In October, Idaho-based Micron Technology announced it will invest $20 billion to build the largest semiconductor fabrication facility in U.S. history outside Syracuse, N.Y. Micron’s investment follows Intel’s September groundbreaking on a $20 billion project to build two factories near Columbus, Ohio. Intel is also investing $20 billion in two new factories in Arizona, and $3.5 billion to expand its facility in New Mexico. Meanwhile, Samsung and Texas Instruments have announced new chip factory projects in Texas.

There’s just one problem — America lacks the skilled workforce to field the team needed to carry out the plan.

To staff the newly announced chip factories and research labs alone – not counting all other skilled talent implications of the CHIPS Act – the United States needs an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 new semiconductor engineers over the next five years, a number far exceeding current graduation rates nationwide.

With that reality in mind, here are three policy steps the Biden administration and the new Congress should act on to deliver the 21st century workforce that full implementation of the CHIPS and Science Act requires:

Establish the “U.S. Business-Education Workforce Dialogue”

The president should direct the Departments of Commerce and Education to immediately co-establish the “U.S. Business-Education Workforce Dialogue” — a framework of ongoing discussion and collaboration between business and education leaders to regularly examine K-12, community college and university curricula to ensure that the nation’s education system serves the skill requirements of 21st century businesses.

The dialogue should include K-12 educators, community and vocational colleges and universities, as well as leaders of multinational corporations, regionally active firms, small businesses and young startups. Dialogue participants should meet at least semi-annually in pursuit of a robust and specific agenda, facilitated by a dedicated staff.

Importantly, the departments should neither set the dialogue’s agenda nor seek to predetermine its outcomes. Their role should be to establish, facilitate and encourage the dialogue, allowing business and education leaders to identify relevant issues and, working together, develop and implement effective solutions, with the collaboration of policymakers.

A particular focus should be to leverage the value of the nation’s more than 1,000 community colleges. Whether serving as educational “onramps,” offering cutting-edge occupational training, or working with businesses to provide continuing education and training for their employees, community colleges are the natural backbone of the nation’s workforce development efforts.

Award “Graduation Green Cards”

Meeting America’s workforce needs requires imported talent as well. In this regard, the United States has an enormous competitive advantage — our higher education system. Nearly 1 million foreign-born students from 200 nations study at U.S. colleges and universities each year — the largest foreign-born student population in the world, nearly twice as many as our closest competitor, the United Kingdom.

Even more important, between 50 and 80 percent of the full-time graduate students in key technical fields at U.S. universities are international students, including 74 percent in electrical engineering, 72 percent in computer and information sciences, 71 percent in industrial and manufacturing engineering, 58 percent in mechanical engineering, 56 percent in mathematics and 54 percent in chemical engineering.

But current immigration policy requires most foreign students to return home after graduation, taking their U.S.-acquired education and training with them. That needs to change.

Specifically, a permanent residency card — “green card” — should be awarded to any foreign-born student meeting national security requirements who completes an undergraduate or postgraduate degree from an American college or university and wants to remain in the United States following graduation.

Create a “Startup Visa”

The United States is one of only a few industrialized nations that does not have a visa category specifically for foreign-born entrepreneurs. In recent years, many other nations including CanadaGermanyFranceNew ZealandAustraliaChilethe United Kingdom and China — have overhauled their immigration laws to attract foreign-born entrepreneurs, including American entrepreneurs.

Congress should immediately create a Startup Visa specifically designed to attract and retain foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to launch new businesses in the United States.

To qualify, applicants should have to meet national security requirements and be required to have raised initial funding — perhaps $100,000 — from private investors. Foreign-born entrepreneurs should be admitted on a temporary basis, say two years. If by the end of that period, their business has been successfully launched, is producing verifiable revenue and has produced jobs for at least two nonfamily members, the temporary visa should be extended for an additional three years. If the new business continues to grow and has created jobs for at least five nonfamily members by the end of the initial five-year period, the foreign-born entrepreneur should be granted permanent residency to continue building their business and creating American jobs.

Passage of the CHIPS and Science Act is a watershed moment for modern U.S. economic policy, a back-to-the-future return to the post-WWII era of stunning technological breakthroughs spurred by significant government investment in American innovation on a number of critical scientific and industrial fronts. But daunting workforce deficiencies threaten to short-circuit the new era before it begins.

To fulfill the extraordinary promise of the CHIPS and Science Act and secure America’s innovation future, policymakers must act now to pass commensurately bold workforce development policies.

If they do, the 21st century is America’s to win.

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