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U.S. Commerce secretary says $8.5B Intel grant is a national security and economy win

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, President Biden awarded $8.5 billion to Intel to help fund semiconductor factories in Arizona, Ohio, New Mexico and Oregon. Here's the president today during a visit to Intel's campus in Chandler, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today's investment helps all Americans in red states and blue states all across America, urban, rural, suburban, and tribal communities. We're not leaving anyone behind, we're not. If we invented it in America, it should be made in America.

(APPLAUSE)

CHANG: Today's grant comes from the $52 billion CHIPS and Science Act, which Congress passed in 2022. That law is meant to ramp up U.S. production of computer chips, especially the leading-edge chips that power artificial intelligence and military weapons. Today, none of those advanced chips are made in America. The administration's goal is to make 20% of the world's advanced chips here in the U.S. just six years from now. I asked U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo why this investment is such a priority. She said aside from creating jobs, making chips in America is also a matter of national security.

GINA RAIMONDO: Right now we buy all of them from Taiwan and Korea.

CHANG: Right.

RAIMONDO: So it's absolutely critical that we get to at least 20% just so that, you know, we're not dangerously reliant on a couple of countries for our supply. In terms of Intel, you know, it'll get us maybe a quarter of the way there.

CHANG: A quarter?

RAIMONDO: You know, we will be making other announcements in the months to come. But Intel is our champion company. It's the only U.S. company that can make leading-edge chips, and so we're excited to be backing them.

CHANG: Well, what about the question of talent? Because one large concern that we're hearing from executives in the semiconductor industry is that there is a shortage of technical talent. Now that the CHIPS money is rolling out, like, have you seen any real dents in this pretty broad talent shortage problem?

RAIMONDO: It's a real issue, Ailsa.

CHANG: Yeah.

RAIMONDO: I'm glad you brought it up. It is a real issue. In fact, if you talk to the semiconductor companies, as I have done, they'll tell you talent is their No. 1 concern. I'll give you a perfect example. Just this one announcement will create about 30,000 new jobs. That's construction jobs and manufacturing jobs. This is just one company.

CHANG: Well, one recent estimate that I saw is that all these new manufacturing plants will create a lot more jobs than universities can fill with new graduates, like 67,000 unfilled jobs. So how does the U.S. even begin to try to help these companies fill those jobs, those technical jobs?

RAIMONDO: We have to get creative. You know, they can't all be for four-year college degree people. So, for example, Intel's partnering with the Maricopa Community College to launch what they call a Quick Start program, which is a first-of-its-kind semiconductor technician program. It's free, it's two weeks, and it prepares students for careers as semiconductor technicians. So we're also working with high schools. You know, we're partnering with the teacher's union to work in high schools all across the United States.

CHANG: That just sounds like such a long process. One community college, high schools, it could take years - right? - to train people up to fill thousands, tens of thousands of technical jobs.

RAIMONDO: I think it will take a long time to get to that. But as I said, this one with Maricopa Community College, it's a two-week program. A lot of these are six-month programs. Fifty million dollars of the grant that we're giving to Intel is for workforce training, so to help them partner with colleges, community colleges, apprenticeship programs to get the systems going. But, you know, it won't happen overnight, as you say.

CHANG: Is there a plan in place to try to attract more technical talent from overseas to these plants here in the U.S.? Like, how do you provide incentives for people to move here, people who are already trained up but in other countries?

RAIMONDO: The companies are doing that. So some of the companies that we will be partnering with will do that on their own. But really this is for American workers. This is an exciting opportunity to train and employ tens of thousands of American workers in good-paying jobs. Half of the jobs, by the way, that we're creating don't require a college degree, and they're good-paying jobs. Intel offers jobs to kids right out of high school, starting salary $50,000 with benefits, many of whom will be earning six figures very quickly. So on the one hand, you're right, it's a challenge. We have to train everyone. On the other hand, it's an incredible opportunity to get folks good-paying jobs.

CHANG: Well, let's move beyond jobs to national security concerns because two years ago, you said that the CHIPS act was essential not just for the U.S. economy, but also for national security concerns. Can you explain that piece? What national security risks does the U.S. face when most advanced chip manufacturing happens overseas?

RAIMONDO: So every piece of military equipment - drones, satellites, nuclear weapons - all require chips, thousands and thousands of semiconductors. And right now, as I said, we don't make any in America. So that is - it's not where you want to be. Think about the pandemic we all lived, how scary it was that we couldn't get our hands on the products we needed when we needed them because our supply chains were concentrated in one or two countries in Asia.

CHANG: Right.

RAIMONDO: So that's what this is about. This is making sure that when the United States military needs to buy semiconductors for a fighter jet, you know, enough of them are made in America so that we're not dependent on one company in one country.

CHANG: But is the U.S. moving quickly enough? Because China and the EU have also set aside tens of billions of dollars to attract chip manufacturers. And so far, including this new Intel grant, the Biden administration has only spent about a quarter of the $39 billion set aside for chip manufacturing. Is that fast enough to compete with countries like China or with the EU?

RAIMONDO: You know, I don't know if you can ever go fast enough. We're working like crazy. I will say it was only a year and a half ago that Congress passed a law. We've hired over a hundred people in the Commerce Department. We're putting the money out quickly. More important than going fast is getting it right. This is taxpayer money. First and foremost, we have to be good stewards and protect taxpayers. And so it's a balance. You want to go fast, but you have to be careful and make sure you get the most you can.

CHANG: Well, we're talking about billions of dollars of government money being invested in a way that we have not seen in decades. What worries you most about all of this going as planned?

RAIMONDO: It's hard to limit it to one thing.

CHANG: (Laughter).

RAIMONDO: But - (laughter) because as you said, it's incredibly ambitious. You know, we just - we have to get it right. By the end of this decade, we have to be producing the most sophisticated chips in the world, in the United States of America, with American workers across many states. We've never done it before. And so, as you say, there's a lot of risk. And we just - we have to get it right and we will get it right.

CHANG: That is U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Thank you very much for joining us.

RAIMONDO: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.