Engineers like Royale Lee, 31, are one reason why Taiwan is the world’s largest contract producer of microchips, which power nearly all electronics.
When a computer virus crippled the machines of his employer, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Mr. Li worked 48-hour shifts to help fix the problem. For years, he answered the phone around the clock. But at the end of 2021, after five years of sacrifice, he became afraid of his phone ringing. His annual salary of $105,000 is an enviable amount in Taiwan, but not enough to keep him.
Over the past decade, TSMC has been known to move far ahead of rivals such as Intel and Samsung in the race to make the smallest and fastest microchips. Thanks in large part to the ingenuity of its engineers, TSMC has become one of the most geopolitically important companies in the world.
Today, many top executives in Taiwan’s semiconductor industry worry that the tiny island territory will not be able to sustain the growing demand for a new generation of engineers. A shrinking population, a demanding work culture and an abundance of highly competitive skilled jobs mean workers are becoming increasingly scarce.
The stakes are huge. Some military strategists believe TSMC’s dominance in microchips provides Taiwan with reassurance against Chinese aggression — in part because the U.S. needs to defend such a vital piece of its supply chain.
Taiwan’s talent crisis is intertwined with TSMC’s success. The company’s headcount has grown nearly 70 percent over the past decade, while Taiwan’s birth rate has halved. Startups in promising fields such as artificial intelligence are attracting top engineers. In terms of hiring, TSMC has to compete with Internet companies such as Google and foreign semiconductor companies such as ASML of the Netherlands, which often offer better work-life balance and perks such as free food.
TSMC’s leadership has defended the company’s notoriously hard-working culture that has helped it grow into a $440 billion giant with 73,000 employees. Founder Zhang Zhongmou recently defended his desired military discipline — saying that when TSMC called employees to work in the middle of the night, their spouses would simply fall asleep. But in recent years, Liu He, chairman of TSMC, has repeatedly admitted that the biggest challenge facing Taiwan’s semiconductor industry is the shortage of talents.
As of August, 104 Job Bank, Taiwan’s largest job search platform, had more than 33,000 jobs in the chip industry. Taiwan’s chip industry employed about 326,000 people last year, according to the government-affiliated Industrial Technology Research Institute.
TSMC was forced to adjust its recruitment strategy. It has broadened the hiring pipeline and raised base salaries for master’s graduates, who are now expected to earn an average of $65,000 a year. It began recruiting Taiwanese graduate students in September, far earlier than the traditional March job hunting season, and even began to train high school students in basic semiconductor knowledge through online courses.
“Many companies are struggling to find the right candidates,” said Lin Boen, a former vice president at TSMC and now director of the Semiconductor Research Institute at National Tsing Hua University.
“They’re not very picky when it comes to finding talent now,” Mr Lim said. “You don’t necessarily have to study electrical engineering or computer science.”
The academy led by Mr. Lin is one of four specialized schools for semiconductors established by the Taiwanese government in 2021 in response to a call to action by industry players such as Mr. Liu and Cai Mingkai, chairman of chip design company MediaTek.
“We are in a race against time when it comes to cultivating semiconductor talents,” Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said. explain At the unveiling ceremony of Mr. Lin’s Semiconductor College.
The challenge facing Taiwan’s chip industry comes from the global economic contraction.In China, where officials are trying to lure Taiwanese engineers to build its fledgling chip industry, the state-backed Chinese Academy of Sciences troubled About the “critical shortage” of qualified workers.one estimateChina’s microchip industry is short of 200,000 people.
In the United States, the government has used billions of dollars in subsidies to attract semiconductor factories, prompting Intel, Samsung, TSMC and others to announce plans for new factories. But surveys of executives show talent shortages remain a problem.
At TSMC, a domestic hiring gap has added urgency to building factories and training workers outside Taiwan. Unlike most major hardware companies that long ago conducted research and production globally, TSMC built the vast majority of its chip-making factories, known as fabs, in Taiwan. A cluster of the best employees and suppliers and a state-of-the-art factory have helped it over the years, but the company needs to start looking beyond Taiwan, said Harvard Business School professor Willy Shih.
“If I were TSMC, I would seriously look elsewhere for this kind of talent,” he said.
Manufacturing semiconductors requires skilled and disciplined employees, which is part of the reason TSMC is good at it, said Wu Zhiyi, director of the TSMC-National Taiwan University Joint Research Center.
Wu, who worked as an engineer at Intel earlier in his career, said today’s tech workers are more interested in jobs that match their interests, rather than chasing just the paycheck like his generation did.
“If you don’t have a lot of financial pressure, you might choose a less demanding job, even if it means giving up the high salary and promise of a career in semiconductors.”
Mr Lee, a TSMC employee, said young Taiwanese are less willing to endure the rigors of working in a fab.
“It’s not as shiny as it used to be anymore,” said Mr. Li, who now works as a web developer for an American company.
104 Job Bank Senior Vice President Jason Chin said that TSMC and other chip companies will never stop turnover without improving working conditions.
That applies not only to workers like Li who face the daunting task of keeping factories running, but also to key researchers who come up with new ways to make chips faster.
One such TSMC researcher was Frank Lin, 30, who left because he found the work tedious and unfulfilling. His job as a product engineer and chip designer wasn’t as stressful as the rest of the company, but he still struggled and craved more meaning and fulfillment. Although he holds a master’s degree from one of Taiwan’s most prestigious universities, his duties are few and far between, with daily assignments made by rote memorization.
“Although I’m making more and more money, is that all there is to life?” he remembers thinking often as he sat working in the sun-drenched office pantry. After less than three years at the firm, he struck out as an independent financial advisor. He didn’t look back. “People want to work for themselves. There are so many possibilities out there in the world right now,” he said.