As TSMC gears up to bring advanced semiconductor manufacturing to the U.S., the company’s American employees recount their experiences receiving job training in Taiwan.
By Dexter Murray. Source: https://topics.amcham.com.tw/2022/08/tsmc-prepares-american-engineers-for-its-first-u-s-fab/
Several hundred young Americans are currently undergoing intensive training at the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) chip manufacturing facility in Tainan. Once finished with the program, these trainees are expected to play a major role in reviving their country’s technological leadership position and strengthening national security as U.S. leaders seek to shore up investment in domestic semiconductor production.
Even before the global supply chain crunches and disruptive effects of the conflict in Ukraine, U.S. policymakers and defense officials began recognizing the importance of winning back America’s leading edge in semiconductors. Today, the U.S. manufactures none of the most advanced semiconductors used in critical civilian and military technology. Semiconductors are extremely difficult to produce, and Taiwan’s manufacturing expertise, commitment to quality, and highly educated labor force have made it the ideal hub for high-end semiconductor manufacturing. Taiwan currently produces 90% of the world’s most advanced chips in massive semiconductor fabrication plants, also known as fabs.
Over the past decade, it has become increasingly clear to many in the U.S. that having such a vital industry concentrated in one place could pose a threat to the country’s national security. If Taiwan were to be prevented from manufacturing or exporting its semiconductors, the effects on the U.S. economy could be devastating. Perhaps even more concerning, the U.S. military would be unable to access critical defense technology needs. The Biden administration has thus prioritized revitalizing the U.S.’ domestic chipmaking industry, and members of both houses of Congress have been working to pass the CHIPS for America Act, which would authorize US$52 billion in investment in American fabs.
Seeing the direction America has been taking in terms of semiconductor manufacturing, TSMC in May 2020 announced plans to build its first U.S.-based fab in Phoenix, Arizona – a pledged US$12 billion investment that carried a commitment of support from the U.S. federal government. When production begins, it will be the most advanced semiconductor manufacturing facility in the country.
To staff the Arizona fab, TSMC began developing relationships and establishing programs around the U.S. to recruit engineering graduates from American universities. In April 2021, hundreds of young American recruits began arriving in Taiwan to complete a 12-18-month training program at TSMC’s plant at the Southern Taiwan Science Park in Tainan. When the Arizona fab begins production, these American trainees will bring the critical manufacturing know-how they gain in Tainan back to the U.S. as TSMC Process Engineers.
With so much riding on this training program, it is unsurprising that any hint that things might not be going smoothly has been cause for alarm. One anonymous review posted on the popular company-review website Glassdoor, in which an American trainee mentioned long working hours and a lack of individual freedom, resulted in a flurry of international headlines suggesting that cultural differences between Americans and Taiwanese were impacting the feasibility of this unique training endeavor.
The program has had to overcome several obstacles, such as the fact that many of the American recruits have only recently graduated university and have little-to-no work experience. What’s more, since Chinese-language ability was not a prerequisite, most of the trainees don’t speak Chinese, nor have they ever been to Taiwan. Many arrived in Taiwan during the height of Taiwan’s COVID-19 restrictions on daily life, which limited opportunities for activities outside of work. This, combined with TSMC’s reputation for intense work schedules, has contributed to concerns about the effects isolation, culture shock, and burnout may be having on the trainees.
In response to questions about the wellbeing of trainees, TSMC told Taiwan Business TOPICS in written responses that: “Employees are TSMC’s greatest asset, and we continue to invest in our employees to ensure they keep growing with the company. We also encourage employees to nurture and enjoy a well-balanced life while pursuing their career goals, offering a wealth of amenities, including state-of-the-art facilities, on-site conveniences, custom fitness and health centers, and a warm ambiance.”
Most of the trainees are housed in a newly built dormitory-like complex near the Tainan High Speed Rail (HSR) station. The complex has a well-stocked 7-Eleven convenience store and an on-site fitness center that has remained mostly closed due to COVID-19 considerations. It has the look and feel of on-campus housing at an American university, with residents from various parts of the U.S. frequently strolling around a central courtyard carrying backpacks and chatting with their peers.
When asked about their experience at TSMC, the trainees were honest about the challenges they’ve faced since arriving in Taiwan. Those who spoke to TOPICS on background say the company-provided housing has been comfortable, but they say they sometimes feel like they are in the middle of nowhere. Since the area around their housing is still being developed, there is a lack of shops, restaurants, and public transportation other than the nearby HSR. By far, the most common complaint from trainees regarding living conditions is that their housing is far from the fab where they work. The trainees must take company buses to and from the Southern Taiwan Science Park, with the commute often taking up to 45 minutes each way.
Apart from an inconvenient living location, most of the trainees are positive about their quality of life in Taiwan. They cite the low cost of eating out and mention all the different foods they’ve tried. Many have traveled around the island in groups together and frequently take the HSR one stop south to go shopping in Kaohsiung. Homesickness has not been a significant issue for most of them, since TSMC funds a home leave for each trainee once every six months.
When asked about work, trainees typically express some frustration about adapting to their new roles at TSMC. They say that although TSMC’s systems had been translated into English for them, translation errors sometimes made it difficult for them to effectively learn their required tasks. Others express frustration with a perceived lack of standardized HR practices, recalling many instances in which HR policies were inconsistent, reflecting an improvisational attitude that has caused some anxiety among employees. For example, there were reports of newer recruits being given more competitive salaries than their predecessors; once made aware of this issue, the company took steps to resolve it, the trainees note.
Known for its manufacturing expertise, commitment to quality, and highly educated labor force, Taiwan is dominant in the semiconductor industry.
Despite TSMC employees’ reputation for lack of work-life balance, few trainees have complained about long working hours. Although the work is intense and high-pressure, the average work week comes to about 40-45 hours. They acknowledge that their Taiwanese counterparts often worked much longer, but most trainees say they didn’t feel pressured to do the same. TSMC spokesperson Nina Kao has said that TMSC prefers its engineers to work normal working hours.
Even though the trainees were generally able to handle the workload, they do often report a feeling of burnout from the lack of autonomy. “When you leave work but still have to take company transportation and live in company housing, there’s a feeling that your whole life is controlled by the company,” says one trainee. The recruits are eager to return to the U.S. later this year and be in charge of their own living arrangements and transportation.
Those returning to the U.S. will not be the only individuals staffing the Arizona plant. Around 300 Taiwanese TSMC employees and managers, including those who have been supervising the American group’s training, are also preparing to move to Arizona to get the plant up and running.
These managers have had to adjust to cultural differences between American and Taiwanese employees. For instance, managers had to get used to the Americans’ habit of using first names to address their superiors instead of using their title or calling them “boss.” One manager mentioned he was surprised at the number of questions the Americans raised during meetings, while simultaneously complaining about the length of said meetings.
Managers also mentioned that the American trainees use a more direct communication style than their Taiwanese peers. For example, instead of interpreting “I’ll get back to you later” to mean that a supervisor will contact you when they have time, the American employees often ask their supervisors for a specific response timeframe. As for the difference in working hours, managers did admit that the Americans put in less time than their Taiwanese counterparts, but at least one manager said he respected their need to maintain a work-life balance.
Despite the quibbles that sometimes arise in cross-cultural working environments, the training program is moving steadily toward its end goal. The 600 employees currently training in Tainan and their supervisors will soon begin moving to Phoenix. By 2024, these close-knit teams of American and Taiwanese co-workers will utilize the expertise gained through their training in Taiwan to begin manufacturing over 20,000 wafers a month at the upcoming Arizona fab.
Both the American trainees and their Taiwanese managers report that building cross-cultural relationships with their co-workers has been key to the overall success of the training program. One trainee said that despite frustrations with HR and the high-stress environment, having such friendly and understanding supervisors has made his experience at TSMC a positive one. The Taiwanese managers said that they are impressed with the American trainees’ enthusiasm for learning basic Mandarin to communicate with their co-workers and appreciate what their trainees have taught them about leading an American team.
The interpersonal relationships between TSMC’s Taiwanese and American employees are a unique example of collaboration between the U.S. and Taiwan. Overcoming cultural obstacles to create a team that can bring TSMC’s powerhouse chip manufacturing to the U.S. has required a level of adjustment and compromise from everyone involved, but it is hoped that the company’s training program and its subsequent operations in Arizona will succeed in helping ensure the future prosperity and security of both the U.S. and Taiwan.