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Talent shortage, TSMC faces the biggest dilemma

Relâche sur : 15 mai 2023

Engineers like 31-year-old Royall Lee are one of the reasons why Taiwan is the world's largest contract producer of microchips, which power almost every electronic product.


When the equipment of his employer, Taiwan Semiconductor, crashed due to a computer virus, Mr. Li worked 48 hours straight to help fix the problem.
For years, he answered the phone day and night.
But after five years of sacrifice, in late 2021, he began to dread hearing his phone ring.
His annual salary of $105,000, an enviable figure in Taiwan, failed to keep him.


Over the past decade, Taiwan Semiconductor has pulled far ahead of rivals such as Intel and Samsung in the race to make the smallest and fastest microchips.
Largely because of the ingenuity of its engineers, TSMC has become one of the most geopolitically significant companies in the world.


Now, many in Taiwan's semiconductor industry worry that the tiny island will not be able to keep up with the industry's growing demand for a new generation of engineers.
A shrinking population, a demanding work culture and plenty of highly competitive skilled jobs mean talent is becoming scarcer.


Over the past decade, the company's workforce has grown by nearly 70 percent, while the birth rate in Taiwan, China, has plummeted by half.
Start-ups in promising fields such as artificial intelligence are attracting top engineers.
When it comes to hiring, TSMC must 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 leaders have defended the company's famously hard-driving work culture, which has helped it grow into a $440 billion behemoth with 73,000 employees.
Chang, the founder, recently defended the military discipline he expects -- saying that when TSMC asked employees to work overtime in the middle of the night, their wives did not object and went back to sleep.
But in recent years, Liu Deyin, TSMC chairman, has repeatedly acknowledged that the biggest challenge facing Taiwan's semiconductor industry is a shortage of talent.


104 Manpower Bank, Taiwan's largest job search platform, had more than 33,000 chip industry positions as of August.
Taiwan's chip industry employed about 326,000 people last year, according to the government-affiliated Industrial Technology Research Institute.


Taiwan Semiconductor has been forced to adjust its hiring strategy.
It has widened recruitment channels and raised base salaries for graduates with master's degrees, who can now expect to earn as much as $65,000 a year on average.
TSMC began recruiting Chinese Taiwanese graduates in September, well ahead of the traditional March job-hunting season, and has even begun training high school students to teach semiconductor basics through online courses.


"Many companies probably can't find the right people," said Lin Ben-jian, a former vice president of Taiwan Semiconductor and now dean of the Semiconductor Research Institute at National Tsing Hua University.


"Now it's not so picky to find talent," Mr. Lin said.
"You don't have to learn motors. You don't have to learn that guy."


Mr Lin's academy is one of four dedicated semiconductor schools set up by the Taiwanese government in 2021 in response to calls for action from industry players such as Mr Lau and Ming-jie Tsai, chairman of chip design company Mediatek.


"We are in a race against time in the cultivation of semiconductor talents," Taiwanese leaders said at the launch ceremony of the Tsinghua Semiconductor Institute.


The challenges facing Taiwan's chip industry come amid a global economic contraction.
In China, officials are trying to attract engineers from Taiwan to help develop its fledgling chip industry, while the state-backed academy of Sciences is worried about a "serious shortage" of qualified staff.
The mainland's microchip industry is estimated to have a talent gap of 200,000.


In the U.S., government efforts to attract semiconductor factories with billions of dollars in subsidies have prompted Intel, Samsung, Taiwan Semiconductor and others to announce plans to build new plants.
But surveys of industry executives show that talent shortages remain a problem.


For Taiwan Semiconductor, the talent gap on the island has led it to step up efforts to build factories and train workers overseas.
Unlike most large hardware companies, which have long dispersed research and production around the world, TSMC has the vast majority of its chip factories in Taiwan.
Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School, says TSMC's development over the years has been helped by pooling its best staff, suppliers and state-of-the-art factories, but the company needs to start looking beyond China's Taiwan.


"If I were TSMC, I would seriously consider where else I could get people like that," he said.


Wu Zhiyi, director of the joint research and development center between TSMC and China's Taiwan University, said making semiconductors requires employees who are familiar with technology and specifications, which is partly why TSMC's manufacturing process is high-end.


Mr. Wu, who worked as an engineer at Intel in his early years, said today's tech workers are more willing to pursue a career that suits their interests, rather than just the money like his generation.


"Your financial stress may not be that great. You may just think that while semiconductors pay really well or have a really good future, he may think that I just want an easy job."


Royall Lee, a former Taiwan Semiconductor employee, says young Chinese in Taiwan are less willing to toil in contract factories.


"It's not the glory days anymore," said Royall Lee, who works as a Web developer for an American company.


Jin Liming, senior deputy general manager of 104 Manpower Bank, said the turnover at TSMC and other chip companies could never stop unless working conditions improved.


That's true for employees like Royall Lee who do the heavy lifting to keep factories running, and for key developers who invent new ways to speed up chips.


Frank Lin, 30, a Taiwan Semiconductor Company developer, left because he felt his job was boring and unfulfilling.
His job as a product engineer and chip designer was less stressful than that of other employees, but he still struggled to find more meaning and fulfillment in his work.
Despite having a master's degree from one of Taiwan's most prestigious universities, he is not given heavy responsibilities and his daily work is very mechanical.


"Money keeps getting bigger and bigger, and that's life?"
"He remembers thinking, often sitting in the sunny office water closet at work.
Within three years of working at Taiwan Semiconductor, he struck out on his own as an independent financial adviser.
He did not look back.
"There are so many choices out there, and people are so self-seeking -- just because of the feeling that people will want to work for themselves," he said.