Industrial Personnel Policy
A not terribly modest proposal for rebuilding the American future.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company announced an Arizona factory in May 2020. Following passage of the CHIPS and Science Act last August, in December the company announced it would more than triple its investment in the project and upgrade the factory’s capabilities. But as the New York Times reported in late February, building an advanced semiconductor fabrication facility in the U.S. has proven more difficult for TSMC than expected.
Much of the difficulty can be chalked up to the usual suspects in American manufacturing—permitting and regulatory compliance—but a notable part of it is labor-related. The engineers that work in Taiwanese wafer plants expect long hours and submit to precisely directed industrial procedures. American engineers, at least according to TSMC employees the Times spoke to, don’t.
American resistance to standardization and management has had a few notable historical upsides, obviously. But when it comes to the much discussed D.C. goal of industrial policy, and re-shoring of, if not all skilled manufacturing, at least critical industries—a slippery national security label—labor culture and training does present a problem to be considered. I can’t pretend to say if it is true that American engineers aren’t up for running a modern semiconductor manufacturing plant, so I won’t. The gist of this column is not supposed to solve TSMC’s problem.
But, to my mind, the Arizona factory situation does highlight something important. Industrial policy needs its own personnel policy, too. Do we have the kinds of workers we need, and enough of them—even with all the forms of automation we should rightly embrace—if we want to build things in America again? I suspect the answer is not a resounding yes, and so here suggest something off the wall that our representatives might do to help fix that.
First, some mostly true generalizations about the consequences of globalization and the financialization of America’s economy, which could all be columns in themselves. Concomitant with the rise of college-for-everyone has been a sorting of the U.S. labor pool into white collar and service sectors. In the still small pool of people who have completed college, there are apparently never enough STEM majors, hence the constant appeals for more H-1B foreign workers. Many of the engineers that built the infrastructure we take for granted are dead or retired. Many of the engineers that maintain the infrastructure we take less for granted are dying or retiring.
Tacit knowledge can only be learned in practice. Our system of talent allocation has for some time now efficiently sorted our best and brightest into financial services, law, and digital technology, with promises of money and prestige. Progress in hard materials science seems to have dramatically slowed after 1970 and the advent of the modern environmental regulatory regime. The kind of people who can do cognitively demanding but repetitive work that primarily requires conscientiousness and an awareness of systems mostly look at spreadsheets now.
What if they didn’t? Or, rather, what if those who wanted to, and could show they can hack it, were offered an opportunity to re-tool to help meet the strategic needs of the country? As efforts to decouple our economy from China gather steam, consider a paid, two-year technical program for training present-day desk jockeys in whatever math and science they will need to contribute to a future renewal of American manufacturing. They will bring fresh eyes to fresh problems. Call it the Hephaestus Program or Project Athena.
Graduates could be matched with businesses trying to get new initiatives off the ground, committing to work in strategic industries for some number of years before striking off on their own in their new career. This would be paired, of course, with incentives funneling existing engineering and materials science talent and education programs towards national priorities. And to be effective, it would entail Congress asserting itself against the regulatory regime, setting clearer standards and adjusting those that are such obstacles to projects like the TSMC factory.
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If we are to rebuild America’s defense industrial base, it will take the concerted effort of private industry and public direction. The limiting factors, besides political will, must be manpower and money. Let us write off the money as a mere matter of will—this is Washington, D.C., after all, where accounting is already creative. Solve for native talent.
Analogies must be inexact, but let me suggest there is precedent to the above. Some college graduates in the humanities and social sciences already leave the middle management track behind for new lives in the skilled trades. As software has devoured the world, coding bootcamps, home curricula, and non-academic schools have sprung up to offer workers who didn’t study computer science or electrical engineering in college a bite of the bits economy. My grandfather received a systems engineering graduate degree, or the equivalent, from General Electric’s internal education program way back when. In a new bipolar age, there are positive lessons to be taken from the Cold War in addition to cautionary tales.
A Project Athena or Hephaestus Program must be a government initiative for two reasons besides its being aimed at the American defense industrial base. First, in a culture as fractured as ours, only political imprimatur would provide the status necessary for the most talented citizens to consider applying. Second, in our disparate impact regime after Griggs v. Duke Power, only the state can get away with the kind of aptitude testing and invasive screening required by the investment in individuals this initiative represents. And to readers who think I put too much stock in the ability of motivated, intelligent people to learn on the job, I say human beings have never learned any other way.