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Biden has big plans for chips manufacturing, but there are too few qualified workers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is running for reelection on a record of bringing manufacturing jobs back to America. This month, his administration awarded defense contractor BAE Systems $35 million to expand a semiconductor plant in New Hampshire. It is the first of many investments from the CHIPS and Science Act, which directs tens of billions of taxpayer dollars at making the U.S. a global chips powerhouse. As NPR's Asma Khalid reports, there is one big obstacle.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I'm in Phoenix, Ariz., which has become this hub for chip manufacturing in the United States. And behind me you can see this massive new facility under construction to build more chips, semiconductor chips, in the United States. But experts tell me one of the big problems is that there are currently not enough workers to fill facilities like this one.

SHARI LISS: As these big investments come, we need the people. If we don't have the people, and that's going to be a huge problem. That's the fear.

KHALID: Shari Liss runs the SEMI Foundation. She's focused on this issue for the semiconductor industry.

LISS: There is a huge concern right now around, how do we sell this industry to students?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So everybody excited to get in some gowns?

KHALID: One attempt is this community college boot camp in Maricopa County, Ariz. It's a 10-day crash course. The goal is to learn enough in two weeks to land a semiconductor technician job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Does everybody have a pair of safety glasses?

KHALID: The teachers, like Jeff Bruchhauser, work at Intel. The college worked backwards, creating lessons based on what chip companies said they needed in their job descriptions. And if you pass the class, it's free.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right, I think I have everything. I've got hoods, the coveralls, booties, gloves, hairnets.

KHALID: Today, as practice, the students are putting on bunny suits. Those are those giant white onesies worn in clean rooms to prevent contamination.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We need eight of those.

KHALID: They're handling washers and wrenches, all while wearing the somewhat claustrophobic spacesuits, to get a sense of whether they'd like to work at a semiconductor facility dressed in one of these all day long.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hold on. Thank you, sir.

KHALID: One of these students works at a doctor's office. Another is in between jobs. And Brad Gist had been a plumber the past few years.

BRAD GIST: So I tried plumbing for about four years. I didn't - it just wasn't for me.

KHALID: He said the heat in Arizona made the work brutal.

GIST: It's just a lot of in the sun. You're in attics, and, you know, it's 100-plus degrees. But I liked the mechanical part of it and building things. So I figured, why not check this out?

KHALID: Gist recently started working in the industry, but he's here because he wants to get a job at a more high-profile company. Like many of the students here, he wasn't really familiar with the big CHIPS and Science Act, or the politics behind the billions of dollars to create new chip factories, and that may make it hard for Biden to get credit for this boom. In fact, while I was down in Arizona, I met with the state's former Republican governor, Doug Ducey. He's back in the private sector, and he points out the biggest chips factory in the state being built by the Taiwanese company TSMC, actually pre-dates the Biden White House.

DOUG DUCEY: You're seeing a lot of politics played right now. Arizona's a swing state. The next presidency could hinge on which way Arizona goes.

KHALID: But he does give credit to the CHIPS Act, which passed under Biden, for supercharging the development. Nationwide, some 50 community colleges have now started semiconductor programs.

MIKE SCHMIDT: We are building a new muscle for the government.

KHALID: That's Mike Schmidt. He runs Biden's CHIPS office that now spans four floors of the Commerce Department.

SCHMIDT: This is the largest public investment in private industry that we've made in generations.

KHALID: But it will not work unless there's the people - a lot of people.

SCHMIDT: We think that we're going to need around 90, 100,000 jobs of technicians between now and, let's say, the end of the decade.

KHALID: Right now, those workers do not exist. And while companies might be able to train technicians quickly through boot camps, there's another huge gap when it comes to highly skilled engineers.

(CROSSTALK)

KHALID: Last year, Purdue University in Indiana launched the nation's first program for semiconductor degrees. The goal is to attract science students who would ordinarily be tempted to join a software or social media company to instead think about these electronic devices found in everything from cell phones to cars to weapons. And for 19-year-old Adam Mack, it was a convincing sales pitch.

ADAM MACK: When I came to Purdue in the fall of my freshman year, I was originally planning on going into computer engineering, and if you asked me what a semiconductor was, I could not have told you. I had never really heard of the industry before.

KHALID: I met Mack at a breakfast on campus recently. There were some 30 executives from major companies like IBM in town to help advise the university on its semiconductor strategy. Finding talent is their No. 1 concern.

ALEX OSCILOWSKI: It is the biggest challenge that we face in this industry.

KHALID: Alex Oscilowski works with a company called Tokyo Electron that makes equipment used in semiconductor plants.

OSCILOWSKI: And that challenge is only going to increase as the industry grows, because we're growing at a rate faster than our universities are able to produce skilled talent for us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What if you have a sort of infinite surface extraction or recombination rate?

KHALID: Across campus, I met Humbert Lai as he wrapped up a high-level science class that I could not comprehend. Lai wants to work on semiconductor design when he graduates. He's from Taiwan.

HUMBERT LAI: If I can't find a job here, I'll have to go back.

KHALID: He'd prefer to work in the U.S.

LAI: But I feel like it's kind of hard as an international student.

KHALID: Multiple people I interviewed, including Doug Ducey, the former GOP governor of Arizona, said immigration has to be a part of this jobs equation. But immigration is a vexing issue in American politics.

DUCEY: If we would secure our border, which I think is very possible, then we could begin to work on immigration reform. We have incredibly talented people from all over the world that come to America to be educated, and then they leave.

KHALID: Experts say, really, it's going to take a combination of strategies to meet the demand. And the test of whether Biden gets credit for this monumental law may not be answered by Election Day. Ultimately, the test is in how this law is executed in the years to come - when and if Americans find new jobs in these new factories.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.