As U.S. officials prepare to make available tens of billions of dollars in incentives for semiconductor manufacturing, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo says the construction industry needs to train more workers over the next decade to meet the demand as well as for infrastructure projects.

The Chips and Science Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last summer, directs $52 billion toward semiconductor manufacturing, including about $28 billion in incentives for manufacturers to establish domestic production of advanced chips. Raimondo, who made the comments during a Feb. 23 speech about the statute at Georgetown University, said officials would announce the application process on Feb. 28, for companies seeking a piece of that funding. 

Since the Chips and Science Act was introduced in 2020, manufacturers looking to meet the demand for U.S.-based production have already announced nearly $200 billion in private investments to build or expand chip fabrication plants, known as fabs, as well as facilities supplying them, over 10 years, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Manufacturers including Intel Corp., Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and Texas Instruments broke ground on multibillion-dollar fab projects last year, with the trade group noting 22 fabs planned in 13 states as of December. 

Raimondo estimates building those facilities will require more than 100,000 skilled construction workers, but noted that “it’s a very tight labor market.” 

“If we don't think differently—this is just a question of math—we will not have the workers" with the skills to build the facilities on time and on budget, she said. 

Raimondo said the industry needs to turn to historically underrepresented groups in construction, such as women and people of color, as well as military veterans, to help fill the needed roles.

“We have to find new ways to go to girls in high school and ask them to think of themselves as a welder, a pipefitter, a plumber; train them, get them into an apprenticeship program and get them a job,” Raimondo said. “So I am calling on construction companies and labor unions to work together toward the national goal of training another million women in construction over the next decade to meet the demand not just in chips, but also in other industries and infrastructure projects.”

Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives for the Associated General Contractors of America, says Raimondo’s remarks highlight the group’s concerns that the Biden administration’s infrastructure investment initiatives have not been coupled with funding for career and technical education programs needed to train qualified construction workers.

Without funding, schools are not doing much to prepare workers for the career opportunities created by these construction investments, he says. 

“Our members and our association are taking many aggressive steps to recruit, prepare and retain a new and more diverse workforce,” Turmail says. “Yet we are having to compete with a federal funding structure that pumps $5 into encouraging students to go to college and work in the service sector for every dollar it invests in career and technical education.”

Raimondo pointed to union programs that have helped reach underserved communities, and said the private sector should learn from them and scale them up. 

“If we get this right, the U.S. semiconductor workforce will be the gold standard for other industries to follow,” she said.

Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, state and labor affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors, says the labor pool capable of contributing to these fab projects could be made larger by not requiring a project labor agreement for them. 

However, he expects the notice of funding opportunity for the chip incentives will likely include requirements for union labor and registered apprenticeships. 

“They need all hands on deck,” Brubeck says. "It doesn’t matter if they’re union or nonunion, there’s such a serious labor supply shortage. And then that’s only going to get worse and worse as more of these infrastructure projects are out there and hit the ground.”

The Biden administration has presented its push for domestic semiconductor production as a move that will help protect manufacturing supply chains, but also as a national security issue. The chips are used in military equipment as well as a wide range of consumer goods.

"So many of our defense capabilities—like hypersonic weapons, drones and satellites—depend on a supply of chips that aren’t currently produced in America," Raimondo said. "But our dependence on foreign semiconductor supply chains also hurts our economy. In 2021, car prices increased nearly 30% and were responsible for a third of core inflation—all because we didn’t have enough chips."