July 24, 2023

Technology Competition: A Battle for Brains


Emerging technologies—including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information science and technology (QIST), and biotechnology—will transform people’s lives and work worldwide. Existing studies consider how technological advances could reshape the workplace, including substituting labor with machines, moving labor into complementary tasks, and enabling new ways to access labor. This paper examines a lesser studied but equally important aspect of the intersection between technology and work: Does the United States have the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent to win the global competition to build, scale, and commercialize emerging technologies? And are current methods of developing and accessing STEM talent sufficient to meet workforce demands?

The possible strategic advantages of emerging technologies are numerous and significant. They promise to deliver lucrative breakthroughs in various industries, from medicine and agriculture to automotive and clean energy. At the same time, countries could leverage emerging technologies to build new weapons systems, bolster intelligence and surveillance tools, or crack an adversary’s encryption methods. Given their tremendous economic and national security potential, emerging technologies have become central to U.S.-China competition. The country that leads in the development and implementation of emerging technologies will possess a set of capabilities that can overwhelm unprepared adversaries. The global technology leader will also gain the upper hand in establishing market dominance and setting technology standards. Access to STEM talent is one key factor determining which country prevails in the technology battle.

The STEM workforce—defined here as individuals from all education levels working in science and engineering occupations—is integral to a country’s innovation potential and technology competitiveness. A robust and skilled pipeline of STEM talent is a crucial component of continued technological progress. It also plays a key role in harnessing emerging technologies’ positive potential while mitigating risks.

This paper evaluates the state of U.S. STEM education and the demand for and availability of STEM talent in three critical technology areas: QIST, semiconductors, and critical minerals. Though U.S. education policy and reform are not the focus of this paper, a broad assessment of the quality and accessibility of STEM education sheds light on U.S. preparedness to build and sustain a pipeline of future STEM talent. An evaluation of the demand for and availability of STEM talent in specific critical technology areas helps clarify the health of the STEM workforce today. The QIST, semiconductor, and critical mineral industries were selected as case studies because they are significant to U.S. national security and encompass a broad range of STEM positions requiring various levels of prior training and education—from no degree requirements to PhD-level expertise. They can thus illuminate the breadth and gravity of U.S. STEM talent challenges.

Access to STEM talent is one key factor determining which country prevails in the technology battle.

The paper finds that the United States has concerning gaps in its STEM talent pool. Further, a comparison of U.S. and Chinese human capital opportunities and constraints reveals that heightened global competition for STEM talent threatens to undermine the positive impact of the United States’ historic human capital advantages, including its large population size, diversity, and research openness. Absent intervention, the United States risks falling behind China and other competitors in the quest to train, recruit, and retain STEM talent.

The STEM talent gaps and opportunities brought to light here are not revolutionary. The private sector, academia, and government have already initiated several promising efforts to cultivate a more robust and skilled U.S. STEM workforce. The United States can remedy its STEM workforce pitfalls and ensure its technology competitiveness by developing assessment frameworks for grassroots programs and implementing processes to replicate and scale the successful ones. It is not too late for the United States to refine its STEM preeminence, but the onus is on key stakeholders to cultivate a STEM-capable workforce.

The Importance of STEM Talent

STEM talent—from non-degree-holding technicians and machinists to PhD-level scientists and engineers—is necessary to invent, develop, and scale new technologies and ensure their responsible and safe deployment. Leading global information technology organizations cite talent shortages as the most significant barrier to adopting and deploying compute infrastructure, automation and storage, cybersecurity, and related technologies. Global executives further say that a lack of talent is among the most significant challenges to sustaining successful technology-enabled transformations. Policymakers in the United States and China also recognize talent’s crucial role in driving innovation and overall technological preeminence.

In 2019, the U.S. National Security Commission for Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) provided an interim report to Congress that identified STEM talent as “the most important driver of progress” in all facets of technological innovation. Nearly every recent U.S. government initiative related to technology, including the National Standards Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technology, the National Cybersecurity Strategy, and the National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science, recognizes the essential role of STEM talent by including a workforce development component. Further, in public addresses, high-ranking U.S. officials, like National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, routinely highlight STEM talent as a necessary component of a successful U.S. technology strategy.

China has placed a similar emphasis on cultivating a robust STEM workforce. General Secretary Xi Jinping refers to talent as “the first resource for innovation.” Chinese government funding for science and technology education doubled between 2012 and 2021, reflecting Xi’s view that “the competition of today’s world is a competition of human talent and education.” Several state-sponsored initiatives, including the Thousand Talents Program and High-End Foreign Expert Recruitment Program, augment increased government spending by luring native technology talent working abroad back to China. Several Chinese provinces now even require elementary and middle school students to study AI to address STEM talent shortages.

Complementary initiatives indicate that the Chinese government’s workforce development efforts extend beyond expanding the STEM talent pool. The Artificial Intelligence Innovation Action Plan for Institutions of Higher Learning aims to enhance the quality of China’s STEM talent and cultivate military-civil fusion in technology education. Such initiatives are yielding results across China’s education and research ecosystem. China has produced more STEM doctorates than the United States since the mid-2000s, for instance, and could produce nearly twice as many STEM PhD graduates as U.S. universities by 2025. Given that China’s PhD graduate growth stems mainly from the country’s most elite institutions, the quality of STEM doctoral education in China appears to be improving. China is now home to the world’s fastest-growing AI research community, publishes nearly 2.5 times as many research papers in top AI journals as U.S. contributors, and produces more top-tier AI engineers than any other country.

China has produced more STEM doctorates than the United States since the mid-2000s and could produce nearly twice as many STEM PhD graduates as U.S. universities by 2025.

These recent workforce initiatives make clear that technology competition is, at its core, a battle for brains. Industrial policies to bolster a country’s technological edge are meaningless without people equipped to execute them. As Secretary Raimondo noted while speaking about the implementation of the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS Act)—a $52 billion initiative to strengthen the U.S. semiconductor supply chain—“if we don’t invest in America’s manufacturing workforce, it doesn’t matter how much we spend. We will not succeed.” The NSCAI’s final report similarly lamented that the United States risks losing its leadership in AI “if it does not cultivate more potential talent at home and recruit and retain more existing talent from abroad.”

Workforce development, once the exclusive domain of domestic and education policy, is now a national security imperative for the United States, its allies, and its strategic rivals. Ensuring U.S. technological superiority requires patching critical vulnerabilities in the U.S. STEM education and workforce ecosystem and addressing global competition in workforce recruitment and training.

The State of U.S. STEM Education and the U.S. STEM Workforce

U.S. STEM Education

The Committee on STEM Education of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) notes that a country’s innovation capacity, prosperity, and security “depend on an effective and inclusive STEM education ecosystem.” Building students’ skills, content knowledge, and literacy in STEM is essential to remain technologically competitive and enable a future in which workers can understand and solve complex challenges. U.S. education policy and reform are not the focus of this paper, but a broad assessment of U.S. STEM education can illuminate U.S. preparedness to develop and sustain a pipeline of STEM talent. Standardized test results and degree completion rates, though imperfect metrics to gauge student performance and STEM proficiency, indicate that the United States has concerning STEM knowledge gaps at both the K–12 and higher education levels.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) administers the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) every three years to measure math and science literacy among 15-year-olds. On the 2018 PISA—the most recent test for which results are publicly available—the United States ranked 18th in science literacy and 37th in math literacy out of 77 surveyed countries. U.S. students demonstrated no measurable improvement from the 2015 test, supporting the National Science Board’s finding that U.S. student performance on standardized tests in science and math has not improved in over a decade and falls in the middle of a long list of global competitors. Founder of the National Center on Education and the Economy Marc Tucker stated that U.S. performance on the PISA should serve as a “Sputnik moment” for U.S. policymakers and educators, noting that China outperformed the United States across all categories.

Younger American students also fared poorly on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which compares U.S. students’ math and science performance to those of other countries. Fourth- and eighth-grade U.S. students ranked below their Chinese counterparts in 2019 and demonstrated no improvement from the 2015 TIMSS. Further, the United States had “relatively large score gaps” between the top- and bottom-performing students in both subjects and grades, which had increased from prior years.

Building students’ skills, content knowledge, and literacy in STEM is essential to remain technologically competitive and enable a future in which workers can understand and solve complex challenges.

The National Science Board found similar STEM performance disparities among U.S. elementary and secondary students based on socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and sex. In 2021, low socioeconomic students in the United States scored lower on national STEM assessments than high socioeconomic students. Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students scored lower than white and Asian students. Additionally, fourth-grade male students outscored female students across all STEM areas. There was no difference in scores between males and females in eighth grade, however, and older female students outscored male students in a few specific areas, such as computer and information literacy.

STEM performance variations among K–12 students could be due, in part, to unequal access to quality STEM education. In 2021, a nationwide National Science Board study revealed that access to well-qualified STEM teachers varies significantly by school demographics. Schools with higher concentrations of low-socioeconomic status and minority students have comparatively fewer highly qualified teachers, defined as those with a degree in the subject taught and at least three years of teaching experience. A 2017 national study by Change the Equation similarly demonstrated that U.S. students who attend the highest poverty schools—where at least 75 percent of students qualify for lunch at no cost or a reduced price—are less likely to have access to STEM resources, experiences, and classes at every stage of their K–12 education. Nationally representative surveys of K–12 principals and math teachers also show that small high schools, high schools in rural areas, and high schools that predominantly serve students from marginalized communities offer fewer advanced STEM courses and are more likely to skip standards-aligned content in the STEM courses they provide. Such unequal access to STEM opportunities contributes to poor U.S. student performance and STEM literacy. It also perpetuates racial, socioeconomic, and gender inequalities in STEM occupations.

The United States also exhibits concerning STEM trends at the higher education level. Less than 40 percent of students who enter postsecondary institutions intending to major in a STEM field ultimately complete a STEM degree. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology projected that the United States needs to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about 34 percent annually to retain the historical U.S. edge in science and technology.

Further, disparities in access to STEM resources at the K–12 level appear to carry over to the postsecondary education level. Many groups of Americans are vastly underrepresented among total U.S. STEM degree recipients. The National Science Foundation’s 2022 U.S. STEM education data indicates that Black degree recipients are underrepresented at all degree levels—associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate—while Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native degree recipients are underrepresented at all but the associate degree level. Additionally, despite holding a higher percentage of total undergraduate and advanced degrees than men, women receive a lower percentage of degrees in STEM fields than their male counterparts.

Student performance on standardized tests and STEM degree completion rates provide a narrow snapshot of the overall health of the U.S. STEM education system but indicate that the United States must overcome significant challenges to build a robust, skilled, and representative pool of future STEM talent. Equally concerning, an analysis of the demand for and availability of STEM talent in the QIST, semiconductor, and critical minerals industries suggests that the United States already lacks the STEM talent required to progress and compete in several critical technology areas.

Quantum Information Science and Technology

QIST talent is a commodity already in short supply, and demand for QIST talent is increasing rapidly. According to the NSTC, the United States, its allies, and its competitors struggle to find the talent required to develop QIST and “global investments in QIST are intensifying the workforce shortage as countries strive to produce, attract, and retain top talent.”

QIST requires a diverse workforce representing various disciplines and skill sets. To be competitive in quantum technology, the United States needs “deep technical quantum expertise” to “advance the basic science,” “broad quantum-capable engineering skills” to “build the base and supporting technologies,” and “quantum-awareness across a range of end-users” to “define and execute on potential applications.” No authoritative data source for projecting future QIST workforce requirements currently exists. Still, the NSTC observes that various indicators—including job board analyses and conversations with industry, academia, national laboratories, and government agencies—“suggest a significant unmet demand for talent at all levels.”

As of December 2021, the number of active job postings for U.S. quantum computing experts outpaced the number of graduates ready to fill those positions by three times, and more than half of U.S.-based quantum computing companies were actively hiring. Filling QIST vacancies in the near-term will prove difficult. Most existing quantum-relevant graduates and talent reside outside of the United States, and the development of new QIST expertise is slow, taking up to 10 years of postsecondary education and training. Quantum computing companies will also have to compete for workers at lower skill levels, whose broadly applicable skill sets are in demand across several attractive industries. According to McKinsey & Company, less than 50 percent of quantum computing jobs in the United States will be filled by 2025 without significant interventions.


Similar to the QIST industry, the U.S. semiconductor industry is in the midst of a STEM talent shortage across multiple occupations and skill levels that is only expected to worsen. The semiconductor industry suffers gaps across every major talent group required to operate a fabrication plant, including production engineering, logistics and support, and production operations. At the end of 2022, there were 20,000 job openings in the semiconductor industry. The United States is expected to face a shortfall of 300,000 engineers and nearly 90,000 skilled technicians by 2030, and increased demand for talent generated by the CHIPS Act threatens to exacerbate this trend.

The United States will require 70,000 to 90,000 new workers by 2025 to meet the most critical workforce needs for fabrication expansion associated with the CHIPS Act. An additional 300,000 workers could be required to totally eliminate U.S. dependence on foreign chips. Major U.S. semiconductor companies like the Intel Corporation already struggle to find enough operators and technicians to keep foundries running. The semiconductor industry must also contend with waning interest in chip manufacturing. According to the Rochester Institute of Technology, the number of students enrolled in the school’s undergraduate microelectronic electrical engineering program for semiconductor design and fabrication has steadily decreased from 50 to 10 since the mid-1980s. The United States lacks the talent required to bolster semiconductor supply chain resilience and faces serious hurdles to developing an adequate supply of future talent.

Critical Minerals

The United States also has talent gaps in industries required to sustain emerging technologies and technological innovation. Critical minerals provide the building blocks for many modern technologies and are essential to national security and economic prosperity. They underpin everything from consumer electronics to advanced weapons systems and are critical inputs in clean energy technologies like electric vehicles and wind turbines.

The White House is keen to diversify the supply chain and strengthen U.S. mining and manufacturing capacity but lacks the STEM talent base required to do so.

China currently dominates the critical mineral ecosystem. China is the leading producer of 30 of the 50 designated critical minerals. The United States was 100 percent import reliant for 12 critical minerals in 2022 and more than 50 percent import reliant for an additional 31. It maintains little domestic mineral mining, refining, and processing capacity. The United States produces only 4 percent of the lithium, 13 percent of the cobalt, and none of the graphite required to meet the current demand for electric vehicles, and demand for critical minerals is expected to increase by 400–600 percent as the world moves to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050. The White House is keen to diversify the supply chain and strengthen U.S. mining and manufacturing capacity but lacks the STEM talent base required to do so.

In 2022, 86 percent of surveyed mining executives experienced recruiting and retention challenges, and 71 percent indicated that talent shortages held them back from delivering on production targets and strategic objectives. Further, approximately 221,000 workers—constituting more than half of the domestic mining workforce—will be retired or replaced by 2029, and the pipeline of available talent to replace them is meager. The United States awarded just 327 mining and mineral engineering degrees in 2020. U.S. mining graduates have decreased 39 percent since 2016. As of 2023, the United States maintains just 15 mining schools and universities. Comparatively, China has over 38 mineral processing schools and 44 mining engineering programs. The United States must recruit, train, and retain more people—from equipment operators and electricians to underground miners and geotechnical engineers—to meet its critical mineral supply chain and clean energy objectives.


The above analyses of U.S. STEM education and talent availability indicate that the United States has unsustainable strategic vulnerabilities. The United States lacks the STEM education system to produce a skilled and diverse STEM talent pipeline. It also lacks a readily available STEM-capable workforce to compete in critical technology areas. However, the United States has several human capital advantages, including a large, diverse general population and a sizeable immigrant community. It is uniquely positioned to prevail in the battle for talent if it plays to its strengths. In particular, the United States can draw on untapped talent pools—including minority communities, individuals without college degrees, and individuals residing in non-metropolitan areas—to expand and diversify its STEM workforce.

Opportunities and Constraints in the Human Capital Environment

The United States maintains several advantages it can leverage to overcome its workforce challenges and strengthen U.S. STEM competitiveness. First, the United States has a large pool of potential talent from which to draw. The U.S. population is sizable and growing. The Congressional Budget Office expects the U.S. population to increase by nearly 37 million people by 2053. Though the share of people aged 65 or older is increasing faster than the working-age population, the United States is nonetheless projected to maintain a robust group of working-aged people who can step into STEM occupations.

STEM industries are well-positioned to maximize the full potential of the large and growing U.S. population. STEM employment opportunities in the United States are available in multiple geographic locations and include various occupations, presenting opportunities for individuals from several age groups, backgrounds, and education levels. The number and proportion of workers from an underrepresented race or ethnicity, for example, has steadily increased within the U.S. STEM workforce and is expected to continue growing.

STEM workers generally have better labor market outcomes than non-STEM workers, experiencing lower unemployment rates and maintaining higher salaries than those in other fields. STEM workers without a bachelor’s degree—who comprise over half of the U.S. STEM workforce—maintain higher median earnings and more professional development opportunities than their non-STEM counterparts. The variety and flexibility of STEM professions present significant opportunity for minority communities, American workers who lack a college degree, and individuals residing in non-metropolitan areas, who constitute sizeable portions of the general U.S. population. In addition to a large domestic talent pool, the United States also benefits from an ample population of international talent.

Though not the primary focus of this paper, immigration has an outsized impact on U.S. innovation and technology competitiveness, constituting another key U.S. human capital advantage. In December 2022, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that immigrants are responsible for 36 percent of aggregate U.S. innovation over the past three decades, despite representing just 16 percent of total U.S. inventors. The unique American research culture, characterized by a high degree of freedom and collaboration, makes the United States an attractive destination for international talent. At the same time, however, complex U.S. immigration laws increasingly dissuade top-tier individuals and organizations from contributing to the U.S. STEM ecosystem. Absent immigration reform, the U.S. legal system could soon constitute a human capital constraint.

International scientists and engineers consistently rate the United States as more appealing than China, mainly due to America’s openness, well-funded science system, and attractive benefits packages. In a 2019 survey, 58 percent of top-tier AI researchers were willing to move to the United States, while only 10 percent said they would move to China. These results are consistent with a 2012 survey in which 56 percent of international STEM professionals said they would consider moving to the United States, while only 8 percent were open to moving to China.

Complex U.S. immigration laws increasingly dissuade top-tier individuals and organizations from contributing to the U.S. STEM ecosystem. Absent immigration reform, the U.S. legal system could soon constitute a human capital constraint.

The United States also demonstrates a strong ability to retain leading international talent. Approximately 77 percent of international STEM PhD graduates from U.S. universities between 2000 and 2015 still lived in America as of February 2017, and high retention is likely to persist. On the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, most international STEM PhD students indicated an intention to stay in the United States post-graduation. Intention-to-stay rates were 70 percent or higher in all STEM fields and were highest—above 85 percent—among students from China.

Despite demonstrating strong retention trends, the United States risks losing its asymmetric immigration advantage. International enrollments at U.S. universities have steadily declined since 2016, costing the U.S. economy approximately $11.8 billion and more than 65,000 jobs. International students cite anticipated immigration-related challenges as key factors influencing their decision not to study in the United States. Sixty percent of U.S.-trained international AI PhD students who left the country after graduating said that visa issues and related hurdles weighed heavily on their decision. Restrictive U.S. immigration policies carry unintended consequences, enabling other countries to outcompete the United States in attracting the best STEM talent.

A 2018 AI policy white paper by a Chinese state-run consulting firm stated that U.S. immigration restrictions “have provided China opportunities to bolster its ranks of high-end talent.” Even friendly countries are modifying long-standing immigration policies to exploit U.S. immigration flaws and secure access to top talent. Since 2010, 22 OECD countries have introduced targeted visa programs to support entrepreneurial STEM talent.

In June 2023, Australia unveiled plans to ensure competitiveness in “the global race for next-generation technologies” by paying foreign workers higher salaries, streamlining visa application processes, and introducing a “point test” to screen permanent residency applicants for skills that could “contribute to the future national interest.” The initiatives, set to take effect in July 2023, mark the first time Australia has amended its immigration policy in a decade.

Canada similarly announced its first “Tech Talent Strategy” in 2023, which aims to “provide the jobs of the future” and secure access to “top talent that will fuel innovation and drive emerging technologies forward.” The strategy includes the creation of an “open work permit stream for H-1B specialty occupation visa holders in the United States to apply for a Canadian work permit,” a “return to the 14-day service standard for work permits, the “promotion of Canada as a destination for digital nomads,” and other aggressive attraction measures. The strategy builds on Canada’s creation of an Express Entry system in 2015 to provide high-skilled foreign nationals an expedited path to permanent residency. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of Indian STEM master’s students studying in Canada increased by 182 percent, while the number of Indian students studying the same fields in the United States decreased by 38 percent. The United States must contend with adversaries and allies in the battle for STEM talent.

Immigration restrictions also incentivize U.S. technology companies to move to where talent resides rather than operating domestically. In a 2019 survey, almost half of U.S. technology firms said access to talent was a primary factor driving expansion into international markets, and only 20 percent of respondents indicated that the United States was the primary place to find required expertise. As the NSCAI noted in its final report, U.S. immigration reform is not a choice but a “national security imperative.”

The United States also demonstrates a strong ability to retain leading international talent. Approximately 77 percent of international STEM PhD graduates from U.S. universities between 2000 and 2015 still lived in America as of February 2017, and high retention is likely to persist.

While the United States benefits from a diverse domestic and international population, China also has some human capital advantages it can leverage to bolster its talent supply and ensure its competitiveness. China is home to the world’s largest population and has experience mobilizing human capital to support national objectives. State-directed efforts to expand the share of the population entering the workforce and attaining high levels of education enabled China’s recent transition from an agrarian to an industrial base, for example. But several significant constraints hinder China’s ability to realize its full human capital potential.

China contends with a pronounced demographic slowdown partly due to the Chinese Communist Party’s population control policies. China’s population is rapidly aging and could decline by nearly 50 percent by 2050. China’s restrictive immigration policies are similarly problematic and could exacerbate the consequences of the country’s dismal population trends. Immigrants contribute immensely to a country’s innovation power but constitute less than 1 percent of China’s population.

China is further disadvantaged by socioeconomic disparities between ethnic groups and between urban and rural citizens. The 125 million people who identify as ethnic minorities in China are paid lower wages and face greater barriers to educational attainment than the majority Han Chinese. Rural residents, expected to form most of China’s future workforce, experience similar hurdles. Grade school students in China’s countryside have lower IQs than their urban counterparts due to chronic malnourishment, and general education levels in rural regions of China are among the lowest for middle-income countries. Such inequities limit individual social mobility and overall national economic productivity, undermining China’s ability to maximize its human capital potential.

Considering these comparative advantages, the United States should capitalize on its strengths to develop a more robust and better-skilled STEM workforce. The private sector, academia, and government have initiated several promising efforts. The United States can ensure its technological competitiveness by supporting grassroots workforce initiatives and scaling the successful ones.

Current Models for Boosting American Competitiveness

Academia and the private sector have initiated several efforts to improve STEM education and proficiency with encouraging results. One example is Purdue University’s Semiconductor Degrees and Credentials Program, which combines classroom lectures with experiential learning opportunities.

The program, launched in May 2022, gives undergraduate and graduate students a variety of pathways—including a master’s degree, undergraduate minors, associate degrees, and stackable certificates—to gain core skills needed for the semiconductor industry. In addition to integrated circuits and chip design, the program teaches other key chip-manufacturing steps like chemicals, materials, tools, manufacturing, packaging, and supply-chain management. The Semiconductor Degrees Leadership Board, comprised of private sector executives, plays a critical role in crafting the program’s curricula based on industry requirements. Some industry partners, such as semiconductor manufacturer SkyWater Technology, even administer the program’s introductory seminar. Industry partners also agreed to offer cooperative and internship opportunities to Purdue students, enabling them to gain valuable hands-on experience while completing their degrees. With over 11,000 undergraduate and 4,000 graduate students, Purdue’s program helps maintain a pipeline of globally competitive talent.

Similarly, Ohio State University launched the Center for Advanced Semiconductor Fabrication Research and Education in September 2022. The center, which spans 10 in-state colleges and universities, aims to recruit new, diverse talent to the semiconductor industry by featuring a curriculum tailored to students outside of the traditional semiconductor-relevant disciplines of electrical and computer engineering. Like Purdue’s program, private industry plays a crucial role in fostering the center’s success by developing course curricula, training and hiring faculty, and purchasing necessary equipment. The Intel Corporation committed $3 million to the center in 2022 and agreed to provide students with internships, mentorships, and research opportunities. According to Ayanna Howard, dean of the Ohio State College of Engineering, the center has helped build a “holistic, inclusive semiconductor educational ecosystem that welcomes students from all backgrounds.”

Flexible apprenticeship programs provide another avenue for students to gain valuable on-the-job training and experience while completing their degree programs. For instance, Samsung’s Fab Apprentice Program pays students to complete an associate degree while simultaneously working at Samsung two days a week. Upon graduating from the degree program, students can apply for a full-time position as a Samsung technician. The program has helped Samsung fill critical pipefitting, HVAC, and welding positions and equipped approximately 200 adults and at-risk youth to attain accredited degrees.

Flexible apprenticeship programs provide another avenue for students to gain valuable on-the-job training and experience while completing their degree programs.

U.S. companies and organizations are also playing a role in improving K–12 STEM education. Micron Technology’s Chip Camp allows middle and high school students to participate in activities related to semiconductor manufacturing and engineering, learn how memory chips are made, and receive mentorship from Micron team members and engineering students from local universities. To make Chip Camp accessible to communities underrepresented in STEM professions, Micron partners with youth mentoring organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, offers the program at zero cost, and hosts camps at historically Black colleges and universities. The program has provided approximately 14,000 hours of STEM education to over 3,000 students since its inception in 2002.

QPlayLearn and the European Organization for Nuclear Research recently launched a similar QIST workshop for high school students. The workshop, which includes lectures, educational games, and prizes, allows students to learn about the fundamental concepts of quantum computing and the industry’s key challenges. The University of Chicago’s free annual South Side Science Festival similarly features games, panels, and technology demonstrations and allows children to meet professionals working in various STEM careers.

Student-oriented initiatives help improve the quality of U.S. STEM education by ensuring that access to educational opportunities is evenly distributed across socioeconomic groups and boosting young people’s interest in STEM careers. But students form just one segment of the large and diverse U.S. resource pool. Minority communities, individuals without college degrees, and individuals in rural areas represent sizeable untapped talent pools in the United States.

Reskilling and upskilling initiatives are essential tools STEM organizations can leverage to extend professional development opportunities to these communities and cultivate a more robust STEM workforce. Reskilling involves an employee learning new skills to transition into a new line of work. Upskilling involves an employee gaining additional skills in their current domain of expertise. Reskilling and upskilling contribute to high employee performance and retention. Employees with access to reskilling and upskilling opportunities are more likely to meet workplace objectives and operate efficiently. Reskilling and upskilling initiatives also create a culture of learning and growth, can advance diversity and inclusion, and allow leadership to align human capital with organizational priorities. Several STEM organizations have initiated locally and regionally focused reskilling and upskilling initiatives that help uplift underrepresented groups.

Micron has hosted a series of town halls in partnership with local city officials throughout Clay, Syracuse, and Onondaga, New York, to familiarize residents with its plan to build a leading-edge memory chip fabrication facility in Clay. The town halls allow rural and suburban community members, who may otherwise lack access to STEM-related resources, to ask questions about the project and its potential benefits, learn about job openings, and receive the materials required to apply for city-administered apprenticeship programs. Several residents have stated that the town halls help generate interest in Micron’s work and bolster local communities’ understanding of Micron’s broader workforce development and STEM education initiatives.

Reskilling and upskilling initiatives are essential tools STEM organizations can leverage to extend professional development opportunities to these communities and cultivate a more robust STEM workforce.

Relatedly, Qubit by Qubit, a nonprofit initiative focused on developing a diverse quantum workforce, launched a four-week summer program designed to bring together a group of individuals historically underrepresented in STEM professions. In 2022, 48 percent of participants were female or nonbinary, 20 percent were Hispanic, and 17 percent were Black. Post-program surveys and interviews revealed that participants were 86 percent more interested in pursuing a career in quantum computing after completing the program. Several participants reflected that while quantum computing was initially daunting and challenging to understand, completing Qubit by Qubit’s program encouraged them to view quantum as an area of study where they could succeed.

Technology organizations have also adopted virtual systems that reduce the geographic constraints associated with traditional skills development. In 2021, Cal Poly Extended Education and two statewide programs—Upskill California and California’s Employment Training Panel—partnered with Amazon Web Services to deliver virtual cybersecurity and cloud skills training to individuals across California. The initiative helps extend the benefits of hands-on technical training to communities who may otherwise lack access. Likewise, IBM offers cloud access to its quantum processors, enabling researchers and scientists to experiment with quantum technology and refine their skill sets regardless of geographic location or access to expensive physical computing systems.

Organizations also increasingly offer virtual credentialing opportunities, such as boot camps and accelerated learning programs. Course Report’s Coding Boot Camps—intensive learning programs that teach various digital skills—are one example. Eighty-three percent of Coding Boot Camp graduates are employed in jobs that leverage the technical skills learned at the camp, with a median salary increase of 51 percent after graduating. IBM’s virtual Qiskit Global Summer School is a comparable two-week intensive learning program intended to give quantum researchers and developers the tools and skills required to write quantum applications. Although IBM expected an enrollment of approximately 200 students annually, the program has attracted more than 4,000 students each year. AT&T’s multiyear $1 billion Future Ready Initiative, which aims to reeducate 100,000 employees for new jobs by providing personalized online digital skills courses, has been equally successful. As of 2018, AT&T had awarded virtual “badges” to roughly 57,000 employees marking their completion of online coursework in in-demand skill areas, including data science, computer analytics, and cloud computing.

U.S. companies should continue to pursue reskilling and upskilling initiatives. However, reskilling and upskilling serve distinct purposes and are most impactful when pursued simultaneously. Companies must account for the limitations of reskilling in the technology industry.

The quantum computing industry, for example, demands workers with a specialized understanding of quantum physics and skills that are not necessarily transferable from other seemingly comparable technology areas like classical computing. To overcome remaining technical barriers in quantum computing, the United States needs people with dual expertise in both software development and quantum engineering. Further, identifying quantum computing applications and driving quantum computing implementation will require a unique blend of specialized and cross-sectoral expertise. For instance, a worker with knowledge of both quantum physics and finance will be required to leverage quantum computing for finance optimization. As Yuval Boger, Chief Marketing Officer at quantum software company Classiq, notes, people with the required mix of skills to advance the field are like “unicorns” who do not yet exist.

Reskilling in the semiconductor industry presents similar challenges. Like in quantum computing, most jobs in the semiconductor industry require a niche level of expertise that limits immediate skill set transferability from other positions or industries. The jobs holding the greatest potential for successful reskilling, like design and software engineers, are the least in demand and the most desirable, offering high pay and flexible remote work options. But lower paying and less flexible jobs in semiconductor fabs, like manufacturing technicians and process engineers, constitute the most acute talent shortages. While an experienced design engineer could hypothetically be reskilled to work in a fab, they are unlikely to pursue jobs at the lower ends of the value chain.

In short, opportunities for reskilling in highly specialized industries may be relatively limited and reskilling initiatives alone will not close talent gaps. Given the breadth and severity of the U.S. STEM talent shortage, technology organizations must pursue various workforce development initiatives at multiple skill and education levels to reduce STEM talent vulnerabilities.


Existing programs to expand and diversify the pool of available STEM talent, reduce barriers to entry associated with STEM careers, and reskill and upskill U.S. workers are promising, but their long-term effectiveness and sustainability are not yet apparent. Developing grassroots initiatives is a laudable first step toward patching U.S. STEM workforce vulnerabilities, but additional follow through is required.

To maximize the impact of existing workforce efforts, technology organizations and academic institutions should:

Recruit independent external research teams to study the effectiveness of recent workforce development programs. Understanding which workforce development initiatives work and why is critical to determine which programs can be replicated and scaled. Independent external research teams—which should be diverse and interdisciplinary and may include think tank analysts, academic experts, or retired industry executives—should develop frameworks and metrics to objectively measure the success of grassroots programming. Research teams should publish routine performance reports detailing the impact of technology organizations’ workforce development programs and assessing their potential applicability to other STEM sectors.

Academia, the private sector, and government agencies—each with distinct roles in strengthening and expanding the U.S. STEM talent pool—can also initiate additional programs to complement existing efforts.

To improve U.S. STEM education, increase students’ interest in STEM fields, and guide underprivileged students into STEM careers, universities should:

Partner with private companies to develop industry-specific postsecondary education programs and create a pipeline of candidates ready to fill critical talent gaps. University–private sector collaboration like Purdue University’s partnership with SkyWater Technology could be expanded to other technology areas. Leading quantum companies like IBM, IonQ, and PsiQuantum, for example, could partner with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, or the University of Chicago to bolster and expand existing quantum computing degree programs and ensure that students gain the practical experience required to fill critical talent gaps immediately upon graduation.

Share resources, best practices, and expertise with local community colleges, technical schools, and high schools to increase access to opportunity. Universities with robust microelectronics programs could, for example, provide hands-on clean-room experience to community college students who typically lack such access due to prohibitive costs. Universities could also work with community colleges, technical schools, and high schools to develop new, more widely accessible learning tools. Education institutions could explore using desktop laboratory equipment to teach students about chip fabrication processes or using augmented-reality and virtual-reality tools to allow students to experiment in simulated fabs. Such initiatives would help generate broad interest in the STEM field, reduce barriers to entry, and increase the speed at which students gain the practical training required to step into full-time positions with little supervision.

Private industry is well-positioned to help build the tools and technologies that enable educators to deliver high-quality STEM education. They can also help increase the opportunities available to minority communities, who constitute large proportions of the American workforce but are vastly underrepresented in STEM professions.

To improve STEM proficiency and support the development of a diverse and highly skilled workforce, U.S. technology companies should:

Partner with local organizations to expand learning opportunities for youth and primary school students. Companies could provide no-cost educational opportunities—like science and technology festivals, STEM-related museums, summer camps, or STEM career days at local YMCAs or sports clubs—to foster hands-on learning and connect underserved and rural communities to STEM careers.

Augment and support innovative industry-specific university programs. Industry partners can take several steps to enhance the attractiveness of programs like Purdue’s Semiconductor Degrees and Credentials Program and maximize the impact of universities’ workforce investments. Technology companies could fund scholarships or offer guaranteed internships, mentorships, or apprenticeships to students in industry-specific programs. They could also commit to interviewing students who maintain a certain grade point average and provide employees with competitive student loan repayment benefits. Such efforts would help lower-income students pursue STEM degrees and increase the likelihood that graduates ultimately use their degrees to pursue STEM-related careers.

Industry partners could further support innovative university programs by volunteering speakers for lecture series and recruiting events and providing input on course curricula and training offerings. They could also host university faculty at their manufacturing, research, and development facilities for information sessions, tours, and roundtable discussions. Increased communication and cooperation between industry leaders and university faculty would help the two communities better understand each other’s needs and facilitate best practices and resource sharing.

Continue to build, fund, and expand reskilling initiatives, but supplement reskilling efforts with upskilling initiatives tailored to individuals underrepresented in STEM fields. Individuals without college degrees comprise a sizeable untapped talent pool in the United States, and technology industries are uniquely positioned to offer them stable, high-wage jobs. More than 60 percent of jobs in a semiconductor fab do not require a college degree. To fill critical talent gaps, U.S. technology companies could design and implement upskilling initiatives to attract and uplift this community. Apprenticeship programs, accelerated skill development programs, or online certification programs would allow underrepresented individuals to hone their skills and advance their earning and promotion potential.

Partner with state and local governments to expand opportunities for individuals in rural areas. Projected growth in the STEM field is expected to disproportionately benefit workers residing in metropolitan areas in coastal states, who typically hold advanced degrees. To leverage the unused talent offered by workers without college degrees, companies should focus their upskilling efforts in remote regions of the South and Midwest of the United States, where proportionately more of these groups reside.

U.S. companies could host town halls in local communities to stimulate interest in the STEM industry, offer educational opportunities, and allow residents to learn about job openings. Such initiatives could be expanded to include information sessions on pathways to STEM careers, STEM-related seminars or briefings from industry representatives, and panel discussions about where to find affordable apprenticeships, internships, or related technical experience. Town halls should be well-advertised in local grocery stores, gas stations, libraries, and schools and held at various times of day, allowing both shift and traditional workers to attend.

Aside from ensuring sufficient funding for federal and state-level workforce development initiatives, government institutions can take several steps to help employers identify their talent needs and connect skilled workers to suitable job opportunities.

Specifically, government institutions should:

Create a digital talent matching platform for each critical technology area to connect job seekers to potential employers. The Department of Labor should create and maintain online talent matching platforms for each critical technology area on the Critical and Emerging Technologies List. The Tasmanian Government’s Rapid Response Skills Matching Service, which helped businesses adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic fill critical vacancies, could serve as a model for this effort.

The platforms should feature a centralized database to which job seekers can voluntarily upload a resume, cover letter, relevant certificates, and related application materials. Government agencies and private technology companies could use the database to quickly identify candidates with the skills and experience required to fill key positions. The platforms could also include resources that help job seekers learn about the educational requirements of their desired careers, identify training opportunities, and connect with career counselors, mentors, or other job seekers.

Promote the value of vocational training programs, technical education, and nontraditional skill sets. Various national surveys indicate that U.S. adults value a college education and view a university degree as the key enabler of a successful future. Government institutions can play a role in reducing the stigma associated with nontraditional skill sets, experiences, and educational pathways and help employers understand how diverse backgrounds can benefit their organizations.

High-ranking U.S. government officials—including the national security advisor, the secretary of commerce, and the secretary of labor—should routinely visit technical schools and vocational training facilities to signal their significance to U.S. national security and encourage students. First Lady Jill Biden’s October 2022 visit to Bates Technical College is a strong first step that could be emulated. U.S. government officials should also continue recognizing technical workers’ contributions to U.S. national and economic security in public speeches, addresses, and strategy documents.

Further, the Office of Personnel Management should issue formal guidance on the value of technical degrees and vocational training programs to federal employers. The guidance should indicate how technical skills fit into the General Schedule (GS) pay grade and job requirements. Such guidance would help government agencies maximize the potential of untapped talent resource pools, connect underrepresented groups to more job opportunities, and enhance the credibility of emerging vocational training initiatives.


Securing access to STEM talent is essential to global leadership in a world increasingly dependent on and molded by emerging technologies. A robust STEM workforce is necessary to invent and develop new technologies and ensure responsible technology use and deployment.

The United States is at a critical inflection point. Despite its historical strengths in diversity, research openness, and student attraction and retention, the United States is at risk of losing its competitive edge in human capital. The quality of STEM education and general STEM proficiency in the United States exhibit concerning trends, and key technology industries are struggling to meet workforce requirements. Meanwhile, demand for STEM expertise is rising rapidly, and U.S. adversaries and allies are harnessing efforts to outcompete the United States for available talent resources.

Academia, the private sector, and government must work together to ensure U.S. competitiveness. To maximize U.S. advantages and expand the pool of American STEM talent, U.S. stakeholders should empower and uplift key untapped talent pools: minority communities, individuals without college degrees, and individuals residing in non-metropolitan areas. The United States can advance national and economic security by expanding access to educational opportunities, supporting and celebrating workforce skill diversification, and reducing the barriers to entry associated with STEM professions.


This CNAS Technology Policy Lab was made possible with the generous support of The Markle Foundation. CNAS also thanks all experts who participated in this Lab.

As a research and policy institution committed to the highest standards of organizational, intellectual, and personal integrity, CNAS maintains strict intellectual independence and sole editorial direction and control over its ideas, projects, publications, events, and other research activities. CNAS does not take institutional positions on policy issues, and the content of CNAS publications reflects the views of their authors alone. In keeping with its mission and values, CNAS does not engage in lobbying activity and complies fully with all applicable federal, state, and local laws. CNAS will not engage in any representational activities or advocacy on behalf of any entities or interests and, to the extent that the Center accepts funding from non-U.S. sources, its activities will be limited to bona fide scholastic, academic, and research-related activities, consistent with applicable federal law. The Center publicly acknowledges on its website annually all donors who contribute.

About the Technology Policy Lab

This policy brief is a product of the CNAS Technology Policy Lab, a working group structure designed to incubate solutions to crucial yet underdeveloped technology policy problems. Each lab is composed of subject matter experts from academia, industry, and the policy community collaborating to develop concrete recommendations to bolster U.S. national security interests and promote American competitiveness. We thank all experts who participated in this Lab.

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  • Sam Howell

    Adjunct Associate Fellow, Technology and National Security Program

    Sam Howell is an Adjunct Associate Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Her research interests include qu...