Semiconductor industry proposes new 'Chipmaker's Visa' for H1B program — program would address extreme talent shortages in chipmaking industry

(Image credit: GlobalFoundries)

The U.S. semiconductor industry is facing a big talent problem: it will be short of 67,000 employees by 2030, according to estimates by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), a lobbying group for the sector. Efforts to develop local talent in the U.S. are ongoing, but there is still a big gap, which is why the industry depends on engineers, computer scientists, and technicians from abroad. 

However, the U.S. H-1B Visa system is making it tough to bring in and keep these workers, so the U.S. chip industry is calling on the U.S. government to rethink it, according to an article from Semiconductor Engineering. One of those options is a new type of visa specifically for the semiconductor industry.

A new type of visa —  a Chipmaker's Visa — specifically for the semiconductor industry has been proposed by the industry and the Economic Innovation Group (EIG). This proposal aims to provide a more streamlined process for industry-specific talent acquisition. The urgency of these measures is underscored by the industry's crucial role in national security and the broader economy.

If the U.S. government were to follow EIG's proposal, it would auction off 2,500 visas per quarter, a total of 10,000 per year.  The group cites a 2013 study from Orrenius et al, estimating that if H-1Bs were subject to auction pricing, they would go for between $5,000 and $10,000 each. 

If a company wanted to use the visa system to avoid paying domestic applicants a market salary, the added cost of buying the visas would eliminate that benefit. On top of that, only companies with NAICS  (North American Industry Classification System) codes related to chipmaking or suppliers would be eligible to bid.  

"The government recognizes there is a talent shortage specific to our industry, and that it is going to take a combination of both efficient immigration policy, as well as investing in STEM programs and other programs, to help grow a workforce," Royal Kastens, director of public policy and advocacy at SEMI, told Semiconductor Engineering. "I do not think it is one or the other." 

As it stands, the H-1B visa system, the primary route for the U.S. semiconductor industry to import international talent , poses many challenges. This company-sponsored visa, typically valid for three years and extendable to six, is allocated via a lottery system due to a 7% cap on visas per country, which is a challenge for workers from countries with a large population like India and China. 

After the visa expires, foreign employees need to get a Green Card for permanent residency, which is another lottery due to country caps. While a worker can stay indefinitely while waiting for a Green Card via an i-140 petition, this situation leaves many skilled workers in a state of limbo, without the rights afforded by a Green Card or citizenship, and can discourage potential talent from considering the U.S. as a long-term career destination, especially if things get better at home. 

One advantage of the Chipmaker's Visa is that it would be renewable once. So a foreign worker could use the first five years and then renew for another five. By the time those 10 years pass, there might be more domestic talent available. EIG says that this "longer-than-usual term" gives U.S. semiconductor firms time to scale up. It also claims that having the auctions quarterly makes the system more flexible than current-day, annual distributions. 

Education in the U.S. is another part of the puzzle. A significant chunk of graduate students in engineering come to the United States from abroad. But once they graduate, sticking around in the U.S. is not easy because of visa issues, which just adds to the industry's shortage of skilled workers. 

To fix these problems, multiple ideas are on the table. Beyond the chipmaker's visa, these include giving H-1B visa holders more time to find new jobs (because today they have 60 days to find a new job or leave), upping the visa caps, and making it easier for graduates from U.S. universities to stay and work.  

This past November, Senators Hickenlooper and Cramer introduced the EAGLE Act, which would increase the 7 percent per-country cap to 15 percent and make other changes to allow more talent in. It would apply across industries and not specifically help build up U.S. semiconductor manufacturing.

"Arbitrary caps on employment-based visas are holding back our economy when so many industries are hurting for workers," Hickenlooper said in a press release at the time. "This bill is a commonsense fix to our immigration system that will reduce visa backlogs, and fill gaps in our workforce."

Whether change comes through the Chipmaker's Visa, the  EAGLE Act or some other government action, there seems to be a consensus that the current immigration system isn't allowing the U.S. to scale up its chip manufacturing capabilities and meet the promise of the CHIPS Act.

Anton Shilov
Freelance News Writer

Anton Shilov is a Freelance News Writer at Tom’s Hardware US. Over the past couple of decades, he has covered everything from CPUs and GPUs to supercomputers and from modern process technologies and latest fab tools to high-tech industry trends.

  • bigdragon
    If they'll be 67,000 workers short in 2030, then that gives the industry and government a few years to fix the problem. Time to deploy resources to train people to fix the skills gap now. Invest in chipmaking programs at universities and colleges.

    I remember touring a nanofabrication lab at Penn State decades ago and being impressed with what they were doing. I also recall there was a problem recruiting students because of a lack of incentives, difficulty of the courses, and perception that domestic companies were outsourcing all fabrication. I couldn't find a single scholarship for chip making, but there were tons of scholarship opportunities for computer science.

    Fix the problem by recruiting and improving today's students. Don't fix it via visas that allow companies to abuse their workers and undercut labor costs.
  • thestryker
    Of all the things in that article I think making it easier for graduates of US universities to stick around is the only semi-rational one.

    We absolutely need more scholarship opportunities domestically and more of a push for engineering in general. Intel does a good job around where I live, but that's because they have fabrication here so the ROI is effectively baked in.
  • ezst036
    There must be people waking up brand new today.

    I could have swore I just read a news article on Toms Hardware about how Samsung is planning for (in the near future) completely automated/A.I. fabs when making chips.

    That's going to happen everywhere, not just in one Samsung fab. So this whole H1B visa is completely unnecessary. The jobs are going to be destroyed. Let Americans do the jobs while they have 2-3 years left to do them before they are completely gone.

    Jobs, once automated, are destroyed forever.
  • ingtar33
    see, this is how american workers get screwed. if the raised the wages they'd definitely get those positions filled. but they don't want to raise those wages, the CEOs need more gold bath tubs and a new yacht.
  • sivaseemakurthi
    To folks who say recruit students, A lot of students recruited are foreigners, so they need H1-B VISAs again. Unless companies prefer only American students, the problem comes back to getting H1Bs. Some of those foreign students after recruitment may or many not get picked in H1-B lottery.
  • George³
    Strange, I couldn't understand one part of the article at all. The companies provide the jobs, pay all sorts of taxes to support the state administration, and yet they have to buy visas for employed foreigners. That they even play an auction for them to get as much money as possible. This is incomprehensible to me.
  • thestryker
    George³ said:
    Strange, I couldn't understand one part of the article at all. The companies provide the jobs, pay all sorts of taxes to support the state administration, and yet they have to buy visas for employed foreigners. That they even play an auction for them to get as much money as possible. This is incomprehensible to me.
    The only thing referring to an auction is a policy proposal from these folks:
    Though it wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility as the US government does auction varying things off on a regular basis.
  • gg83
    Great article. I think the proposals make perfect sense
  • PEnns
    Those companies do pay those H1B program employees a lower salary, right??

    Now we know what they are pushing for such a program, and they have been doing that for decades under the guise of "not finding workers in the US....."
  • unicorn23
    The level of misinformation in this article is astounding (coz it's another puff piece supporting the India/China immigration lobby, I guess).

    Let's apply some fact checks shall we: the H1-B visa is NOT lottery due to the 7% country cap but due to the fact that the no. of visa applications are 5 times the no. of visas and aren't allotted on the basis of highest skill/pay. The very fact that Indians comprise almost 75% of visas allotted makes the statement of country cap a load of bull crap.

    The 7% country cap does apply to the Green card process so the permanent immigrants represent the whole world rather than just Indians/Chinese/Mexican as would be the case if the country cap was discarded. Do I want to live in a multicultural society OR one dominated just by 3 communities (I think all of us would pick the former).

    Another mathematical fallacy: If the semiconductor industry is so automated and is expected to be short by 67k in 2030, it's an easy fix - just allocate a miniscule 10000 visas from the massive 65k H1-B visas allotted each year to these national security related skills instead of giving some low paid lower skill coding coolie the H1 visa. But no - this article focuses on furthering the immigration lobby's agenda in the guise of national security - what a hoot!

    Also if the immigration lobby is so concerned about the welfare of immigrants, why do they NOT allow complete portability of the visa freely once the immigrant is here. Currently all of these H1s are nothing more than modern indentured slaves for the visa duration making these immigration consultants fat along with the tech companies that exploit them with lower wages compared to citizens and green card holders. A twisted and immoral industry supported by an article written in complete bad faith.