Working Papers

Offshoring in the Semiconductor Industry

Historical Perspectives


Semiconductor design is a frequently-cited example of the new wave of offshoring and foreign-outsourcing of service sector jobs.1 It is certainly a concern to U.S. design engineers themselves.2 In addition to the current wave of white-collar outsourcing, the industry also has a rich experience with offshoring of manufacturing activity. Semiconductor companies were among the first to invest in offshore facilities to manufacture goods for imports back to the U.S. A brief review of these earlier manufacturing experiences and their impact on the fortunes of the domestic industry and its workers can help to illuminate the current debates over offshoring in services. Because meaningful data about the impact of the offshoring of chip design (and even manufacturing) are limited, we rely on a more qualitative analysis for our key points. We have conducted dozens of interviews with engineers and managers at numerous semiconductor and related companies in the United States, Asia, and Europe over the past six years. Our research also incorporates the rich store of publicly available information in trade journals and company reports. This paper describes the two previous stages of offshoring semiconductor assembly jobs and of outsourcing semiconductor manufacturing and the impact they had on the U.S. semiconductor industry. We argue that the initial concern about losing domestic jobs in both stages turned out to be unfounded as the industry used the situation to its competitive advantage by becoming cost competitive (assembly stage) and by developing the fabless sector (manufacturing stage). We then analyze the on-going stage of offshoring design jobs, and compare this stage to the two that came before in order to explore the possible impact on domestic jobs and the U.S. semiconductor industry. We begin in section one with a brief description of the stages of semiconductor production and our analytical framework. Section two looks at the offshoring of assembly jobs, and section three analyzes the foreign outsourcing of manufacturing. Section four explores the offshoring of design jobs, and concludes with a discussion of what this means for the U.S.