The world's largest chipmaker promised to create thousands of US jobs. There are growing tensions over whether US workers have the skills or work ethic to do them.
- TSMC says the opening of its Arizona factory has been delayed over a shortage of skilled workers.
- Differences in US and Taiwanese work culture could pose another challenge.
The world's leading chipmaker says a lack of skills among American workers is why the opening of its Phoenix semiconductor factory has been pushed back to 2025.
It's why the company, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., wants to get the US government to approve visas for up to 500 additional Taiwanese workers — a development that an Arizona labor union is trying to stop.
It's not just a disagreement over expertise that poses risks to TSMC's Arizona chip plant. Differences in work culture between the US and Taiwan — where employees say extended shifts and worker obedience are expected — could bring challenges to not only the construction of the factory but also its operations after opening.
In March, Morris Chang, TSMC's founder, spoke at a panel in Taipei about what he considered a significant gap in work cultures.
"If an engineer [in Taiwan] gets a call when he is asleep, he will wake up and start dressing," he said. "His wife will ask: 'What's the matter?' He would say: 'I need to go to the factory.' The wife will go back to sleep without saying another word. This is the work culture."
TSMC employees told The New York Times in February they were skeptical that American workers would be willing to make the same sacrifices as workers in Taiwan and said Taiwanese workers in Arizona would likely be forced to pick up the slack for their American colleagues.
"The most difficult thing about wafer manufacturing is not technology," Wayne Chiu, a former TSMC engineer who said he considered relocating to the US before deciding against it, told the Times. "The most difficult thing is personnel management. Americans are the worst at this because Americans are the most difficult to manage."
Current and former US TSMC employees have also raised concerns on the careers site Glassdoor.
"My time at TSMC Phoenix was a nightmare," an Arizona engineer wrote in July. "The unmanageable workload, toxic office environment, and lack of resources made it an unbearable experience."
An anonymous Phoenix employee wrote in July: "12-hour working is normal, it's not just on the news, even if you work on weekends, still can't meet the deadline."
In June, Fortune reported a Taiwan engineer of five years said TSMC workers were discouraged from applying for overtime pay and expected to do what they're told.
"It's impossible for managers to express their opinions to upper-level management. This simply cannot be done," he said.
On July 24, a Taiwanese YouTube channel with nearly 3 million subscribers posted a video accusing the Arizona workers of being lazy and using their phones too much on the job, a bilingual newsletter on tech, business, and US-Asia relations reported. Insider was unable to contact the administrator of the YouTube channel.
But Focus Taiwan reported in June that when he was asked about US workers' concerns about the company's culture, Mark Liu, TSMC's chair, said: "Those who are unwilling to take shifts should not enter semiconductor manufacturing." Liu added: "This field isn't just about lucrative wages but rather a passion for it."
Liu also said that TSMC's US workers would not be expected to adopt the same work culture as those in Taiwan — and that he'd be open to changes as long as the company's core values were upheld.
The fierce debate over whether US workers can cut it at the world's leading chipmaker
Chang, TSMC's founder, was blunt in his assessment of the US workforce in a 2022 podcast, saying: "There's a lack of manufacturing talents to begin with."
He cited TSMC's experience at its Oregon manufacturing plant, where he said the cost of production was about 50% higher than in Taiwan.
"And we send all kinds of people. We change the managers, change the engineers. We use both America, local engineers. We also send engineers from Taiwan to Oregon to try to improve the performance," he said in the podcast, hosted by the Brookings Institute.
He said performance had improved but that the 50% cost difference remained the same.
But in claiming a skills shortage in Phoenix, TSMC has deliberately misrepresented the skillset of Arizona's workforce, Arizona Pipe Trades 469 Union said. It says it represents over 4,000 pipe fitters, plumbers, welders, and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning technicians.
It started a petition to urge US lawmakers to deny the Taiwanese worker visas the company was seeking. By approving TSMC's visa requests, the union said, lawmakers would be laying the groundwork for "cheap labor" to replace American workers.
"Replacing Arizona's construction workers with foreign construction workers directly contradicts the very purpose for which the CHIPS Act was enacted — to create jobs for American workers," the petition said.
The union did not respond to a request for comment, and TSMC did not respond to Insider's questions about its culture and expectations for US workers. However, the company did say that the incoming Taiwanese workers will not be a threat to any US jobs — and be there for only a limited time to support the construction process.
"The TSMC Arizona fab is now in a critical phase of handling and installing all of the most advanced and dedicated equipment in a sophisticated facility," the company told Insider, citing the deployment of giant and complex tools. "Our vendors need to mobilize specialized workers with strong experience and related skillsets to support this work and share the knowledge with the local workers."
It added: "We have not replaced any of our local workers with foreign workers and continue to prioritize the hiring of local workers in Arizona."
Adam Ozimek, an Economic Innovation Group economist, recently said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Americans might be able to do the work — but at a slower pace.
"What I have heard from semiconductor industry people is that it isn't that US plumbers and pipe-fitters literally can't do the work," he wrote. "It's that it takes them an order of magnitude longer because of experience differences."
Do you work in the semiconductor chip industry and have a story to tell? Reach out to this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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