As CHIPS Act Rolls Out, Commerce Takes on the R&D of Workforce Training

The administration is prepared to invest big in workforce training for the semiconductor industry, but first officials say they have to know what works.

The Biden administration is stepping up its efforts around workforce development for the semiconductor industry as it continues to put the CHIPS Act into action.

The big idea: When the $53B package of investments in the semiconductor industry passed Congress last year, it didn’t contain much dedicated funding for job training. But the U.S. Department of Commerce was directed to incorporate workforce development into a broader research and development plan.

Now, those plans are coming into shape, as outlined in a brief to be released by the department’s CHIPS for America office on Friday. “This isn’t a traditional workforce initiative,” the department says.

Instead, it’s a true R&D approach. Implementation and scale will play big roles—but curation, innovation, and evaluation will play equally large ones. The thinking, department officials say, is that they need to know what’s working, and what’s not, to guide future priorities.

The how: The department plans to spend $11B across all its R&D efforts related to the semiconductor industry. 

Much of that would be run through a new National Semiconductor Technology Center, envisioned as a public-private consortium to sharpen the country’s technological edge, speed commercialization, and expand capacity to educate people for jobs in the industry. It would include industry, higher education institutions, workforce agencies, and government officials.

  • The workforce side of the NSTC would be charged with identifying and investing in promising approaches to education and training, and also conducting R&D to create and test novel ones.

The why: The administration’s overall goal is to double the nation’s semiconductor workforce, including by:

  • Tripling the number of graduates that colleges are producing in semiconductor-related fields.
  • Training 100K new technicians, including through apprenticeships and career and technical education, for manufacturing and similar roles.

“CHIPS for America is going to create hundreds of thousands of good jobs,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has previously said. “But here’s the truth: if we don’t invest in America’s manufacturing workforce, it doesn’t matter how much we spend. We will not succeed.”

The details: In the new brief, leaders of CHIPS for America describe how they plan to develop workforce centers of excellence within the NSTC. Possible focus areas include:

  • Developing a voluntary framework for credentials that would help align college programs, as well as apprenticeships and other training tracks, with employer needs in the semiconductor industry.
  • Curating a central repository of courses, other educational materials, and information on microcredentials, training programs, and work-based learning opportunities.
  • Providing physical space and equipment for training, and bringing in faculty members with industry experience.
  • Developing new training methods that leverage technological advances. 

In taking a more hands-on approach to workforce development, the NSTC would be drawing on the experience of other government initiatives, such as the Department of Defense’s SCALE program and the National Science Foundation’s historic role in funding curriculum development, experiential learning, and teacher training.

CHIPS for America is working closely with the NSF, which has its own $200M fund to support talent creation in the semiconductor industry.

Looking forward: Across all the administration’s workforce efforts, getting employer buy-in will be critical, the Commerce Department says. Industry leaders made it clear that for the NSTC to succeed, it has to be seen as a “neutral, trusted, and science-driven player.”

The goal with its workforce initiatives would be to grow capacity quickly and also to inform long-term investment in education and training. Already, many incentive awards for companies to expand or build new semiconductor manufacturing facilities are expected to include a workforce development component. 

  • And the Commerce Department estimates total workforce investment for CHIPS-funded facilities to exceed $500M in combined government and company funds.

The incentive awards also are designed to encourage the creation of “good jobs” in construction, which will have the most immediate demand for workers as manufacturing facilities are built. 

States and colleges are also investing in education and training for semiconductor jobs. Since the CHIPS Act passed, seven states have approved new funding for workforce training for the industry. And more than 50 community colleges have announced new or expanded programs aligned with the field.

The Commerce Department’s aim, it says, is to make sure all that effort and money is spent well.

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