US Shortage of High IQ Workers

At first glance it seems peculiar that semiconductors, a key item of national strategic interest, should be produced in only a few places in the world, most notably Taiwan, using devices produced only in Eindhoven in the Netherlands by one firm, ASML. Isn’t the United States big enough to be able to support all of these technologies domestically? Yes and no.

Semiconductor manufacturing is the most difficult and complicated manufacturing process ever attempted by human beings. A literal spec of dust can ruin an entire production run. How many people can run such a factory? Let’s look at the United States. The labor force is approximately 164 million people which sounds like a lot but half of the people in the labor force have IQs below 100. More specifically, although not everyone in semiconductor manufacturing requires a PhD, pretty much everyone has to be of above average intelligence and many will need to be in the top echelons of IQ.

In the entire US workforce there are approximately 3.7 million workers (2.3%) with an IQ greater than two standard deviations above the mean. (Mean 100, sd, 15, Normal dist.) Two standard deviations above the mean is pretty good but we are talking professor, physician, attorney level. At the very top of semiconductor manufacturing you are going to need workers with IQs at or higher than 1 in a 1000 people and there are only 164 thousand of these workers in the United States.

164 thousand very high-IQ workers are enough to run the entire semiconductor industry but you also want some of these workers doing fundamental research in mathematics, physics and computer science, running businesses, guiding the military and so forth. Moreover, we aren’t running a command economy. Many high-IQ workers won’t be interested in any of these fields but will want to study philosophy, music or English literature. Some of them will also be lazy! I’ve also assumed that we can identify all 164 thousand of these high-IQ workers but discrimination, poverty, poor health, bad luck and other factors will mean that many of these workers end up in jobs far below their potential–the US might be able to place only say 100,000 high-IQ workers in high-IQ professions, if we are lucky.

Perhaps we should amend our immigration policy. Bring an element of free enterprise to it. Offer cash to attract high IQ workers to the US?


Or perhaps we should treat ALL of our citizens like the precious human and economic resources they can be and properly fund our PUBLIC educational systems to ensure not one brain cell of potential talent is lost.

The problem isn’t lack of raw material. If this were a numbers game, China and India would dominate. As the article states, the fabrication design role is dominated by a single firm in the Netherlands (population 17 million) and actual use of that gear to make chips is dominated by one firm in Taiwan (population 23 million). If the US is having trouble sustaining an industry that requires brainpower in the 99% percentile with a population of 332 million, how are these countries maintaining their edge with less than one tenth the population?

The problem is not numbers. The problem is America’s flawed education system that treats top-notch education as a luxury good for the rich and funds education for the masses as a means of providing the least possible skills required for a life of McJobs.



More specifically, although not everyone in semiconductor manufacturing requires a PhD, pretty much everyone has to be of above average intelligence

Now what number of studies with consistently repeatable results forced this, rather glib, conclusion? No. You just have to have people smart enough to do the part of the job you need them to do. Like most complex tasks.

Free marketeering it may or may nor have any effect since they will be interested only in getting the most money while ignoring the actual thing they are needed to do. That is what the free market does best.

Pretty much sums it up. A comment from the article: The combined population of Taiwan and the Netherlands is about 40 million. The combined labor force is about 20 million. I don’t think Alex’s reasoning holds on why the US can’t do semi-conductor manufacturing.

Seems like we like to brag about how America can do anything, except whatever we need to do at the moment. For that we need more outside hires because we just don’t have the goods. Do these people ever monitor themselves when they choose what to believe?


Intelligence is also strongly influenced by the environment. During a child’s development, factors that contribute to intelligence include their home environment and parenting, education and availability of learning resources, and healthcare and nutrition.

Perhaps requiring a living wage would facilitate providing more children of elevated IQ if parents had the time to devote to their children rather than being on the treadmill for economic survival?

That might have an additional benefit of reducing the number of homeless folks living in their vehicles & streets.
Yesterday I watched a PBS interview with the Author of Nomadland. She talk on how older seasonal workers at Amazon warehouses cannot maintain the pace.
I guess that is true of all workers.

I suppose those injured workers can be proud that their efforts in part have resulted in Bezos giving $10 billion to climate change.


Spot on.

Although I also suspect this is a numbers game.

As in the number of dollars we have to spend to make chips in the U.S. versus the number of dollars we have to spend to make them in the Netherlands and Taiwan.

We Americans value the almighty dollar, even over our national security.

Hmm, maybe it is an IQ issue after all.



Not really. A production run consists of numerous wafers. But even if just considering one wafer, it will usually consist of 100 or even 500 die. A spec of dust can ruin one die on the wafer. And, due to a few high IQ people (not those running the fabs) the most complex die have redundancy or the ability to slightly degrade the chip to survive a single spec of dust (or other defect)

Some truth here. But a FAB cannot operate with ONLY equipment from ASML. The latest and greatest chips require their EUV equipment, but also equipment from the likes of Applied Material, Lam Research, KLA all US companies. And designing the chips requires software from the likes of Cadence, a US company



I think it was something Milton Friedman wrote in his column in Newsweek, years ago, that said words to the effect “if other countries give away their labor and resources at lower prices, it is to our advantage to use them”. Seems leaving it up to other countries to subsidize the education of their population, so they can do all the inventing, and engineering, as well as production, would fit with Friedman’s thinking. Years ago, I envisioned a General Motors where the only USians on the payroll were the honchos on the top floor of the RenCen, while all the products are entirely designed and built in China, exploiting subsidized Chinese education as well as cheap Chinese labor and resources.



As we’ve discussed before, though, the U.S. has pretty much the same level of tertiary educational attainment as the very best countries in Europe. Taking the countries mentioned in this article, the U.S. has roughly the same proportion of college grads as Taiwan, and more than the Netherlands. We fund our colleges very differently than some other countries, but end up in the same place in terms of national-level educational achievement as most other developed nations:


Methinks we have returned to the era of 1890’s to 1920’s.

As historian Nell Irvin Painter explains, “‘Gilded’ is not golden. ‘Gilded’ has the sense of a patina covering something else. It’s the shiny exterior and the rot underneath.”

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I’m making a slightly different point. It isn’t the absolute quantity or objective “smarts” level of those that make it to college and undergrad / masters / PhD degrees or their numeric proportion to the full population that concerns me. It’s what America does with those that fall below that line. Imagine two contrasting scenarios:


  • population of 330,000,000
  • yearly BS/BA graduate population of 2,000,000
  • yearly Masters graduate population of 866,000
  • yearly Doctorate graduate population of 52,000
  • average IQ of 95 of those who DON’T go to college


  • population of 165,000,000
  • yearly BS/BA graduate population of 1,000,000
  • yearly Masters graduate population of 433,000
  • yearly Doctorate graduate population of 26,000
  • average IQ of 115 of those who DON’T go to college

Which country is doing better overall at education? Their top attainment is identical from a proportional sense but what are they doing to their “mental capital” of the rest of the population? My concern is that the US essentially writes off a huge swath of our human capital by allowing VAST discrepancies in funding and quality of education in primary / secondary schools. It is virtually assured that those school populations house many potential Einsteins, Feynmans, Steinbecks or McCartneys a truly vibrant scientific or artistic society needs to not just thrive but survive. And an education system that accepts kids “graduating” from high school unable to balance a checkbook or calculate compound interest on a credit card balance is failing the country.



IQ belies the real issue in that process design drives everything. Specifically, a process that is developed with all stakeholders inputs, needs and perspectives can accomplish truly amazing results and consistency.

“Begin with the end in mind.” Stephen Covey

Extraordinary Processes, Ordinary people. ~Taiichi Ohno, probably

Steve Jobs might modify Covey’s quote to: Begin with the customer in mind.

The rest of this drivel is simplistic deductive reasoning in which you can arrive at any conclusion.

“If 1% of $100,000 Trillion is available and we are 40% likely to achieve it, we can conquer the world!” - a TAM assessment by tone deaf consultants.

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At what cost to who? I have posted before, a chart showing how, in Michigan, state funding of higher education has declined, over the last forty years, transferring the cost onto the students. In the 70s tuition and books could be covered by working part time. Now, higher education for many is only enabled by guaranteed student loans. At what point will government education funding be zeroed out, and guaranteed student loans sharply restricted, so the money can be used for “other priorities”, because everything the Shinies want can be invented and engineered in countries that “give away” education?


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A valid thing to be concerned about - but is that what’s happening in the US any different than other countries? In nearly every OECD country, the majority doesn’t go to college - and in all the OECD countries there’s a strong skew between kids of college-educated parents being far more likely to go to college than those whose parents don’t have that level of attainment. Even with cheap or free tuition, going to college requires resources and social capital and the skills to thrive in an academic environment that not all smart kids have access to.

Well, generally at the cost to the Shinies. Remember, college students are society’s winners. Most people don’t graduate from college (across the OECD). People who graduate from college have significantly higher incomes and access to non-income resources (like stable marriages) than those who don’t. Paying for post-secondary education with public money for those who could otherwise afford to pay it themselves (either now or in the future through loan repayments) is seriously regressive.

When only 7-10% of the population went to college, with more sizable public externalities to having as much of those educated folks be in your state as possible, you could make a case that the externalities were worth the regressive nature of public subsidies to colleges and that the non-college folks had a lot of wealthy people that could bear to pay for it. Now that about 45% of people go to college, it’s a lot harder to make the case for why costs should be shifted away from richer college grads to society at large.

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I’m not arguing any country should send 100% of its teenagers onto college. What I’m arguing is the the intellectual capabilities of the 38% of students in America who do NOT go onto college are woefully inadequate – for their individual benefit to avoid getting swindled by multi-national corporations, for their individual benefit to avoid being lied to by politicians promising them everything for nothing while looting the Treasury for the top 0.1% and for the country as a whole to survive as a democracy in a more technical world.

And the more subtle argument getting lost here is that a public that is confortable writing off the educational fate of the 38% not deemed "college material by handing them worthless high school diplomas and starving schools of resources is INEVITABLY lumping into that group “raw material” that COULD attain Nobel Prize levels of value to society if given the same opportunities from the git-go.

It’s a separate argument that the educational attainment of the average student in the 62% that DOES go on to college is not where it should be either but that’s another thread.



Certainly that would be bad - but is it true? Or rather, is it more true in the U.S. than in other developed countries? Does the typical American teenager who isn’t on a college track have “intellectual capabilities” that are woefully inadequate compared to a the typical Italian or German teenager who can’t pass their university entrance exams and end up with the workingperson’s life?

I’m not pushing against the idea - I’m genuinely curious if it’s the case. I’ve honestly never really seen much discussion about whether the average non-uni Portugese or Austrian person has lower intellectual capacities than our own non-college population.

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Had a former OB/Gyn co-worker adopt not one but two babies (that she delivered) from the same crack addicted mother (different fathers - TMF banned the colloquial slang term). Talk about the ultimate nature vs nurture experiment. The first child was very precocious and seemed to be succeeding scholastically. The second, I retired and moved before anything could be determined. All I can say is her and her husband were brave and/or crazy.


There is another question. I have heard, over the years, that students who do not go on to college in Europe are usually directed to trade schools. In the US, high school graduates who do not go to college, are left, unskilled and semi-literate, to fend for themselves. In Germany, for instance, many of the unskilled, assembly line “jobs”, go to guest workers from other countries, as native Germans tend to have better opportunities. Here in the US, such an assembly line job is often the best a high school graduate can hope for, hence one vector of the anti-immigrant movement: “saving” the unskilled jobs for USians.



US immigration history includes an era when a literacy test was required. It failed to slow immigration rates as some hoped it would.

Some sort of intelligence test might be possible especially for the H1-B visas.

But a college diploma has to be a step in the right direction.

That may be appropriate for software and semiconductors but we do need ag workers where requirements are less demanding. Different strokes etc . . .

Certainly some are. But only some. There’s maybe 1.3 million enrollees in post-secondary EU vocational educational programs, compared to about ~19 million college (university) enrollees. Where the EU appears to differ is how they separate out students into university and non-university tracks in high school, with about 9 million upper secondary students being enrolled in vocational instruction.

Which is…a thing, I guess. I mean, you switch from one of the most important determinants of your life’s prospects being how you perform on a series of academic exercises when you’re in high school to a system where one of the most important determinants of your life’s prospects is how you perform on a series of academic exercises when you’re in middle school.

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Another factor is currently being floated, a test for ideological purity. Another throwback to the 50s, when people with “Communist” leanings were rejected.