A recent Wall Street Journal news story detailed the problems encountered by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company in getting a $12 billion plant up and running in Phoenix. The company is planning to produce state-of-the-art 3-nanometer chips at the plant.
The company cited federal regulatory requirements, construction roadblocks, and additional site preparation as causes of delays and additional costs. It also said that it isn’t easy to recreate in America the manufacturing ecosystem that has been built in Taiwan.
Surprisingly, even with these difficulties, TSMC subsequently announced the construction of a second plant in Phoenix, taking its total investment in the metropolis to a staggering $40 billion.
It was particularly sobering to read that one of the biggest challenges facing the company is finding qualified engineers in the U.S. The company said that American engineers have to be sent to Taiwan for a year or more of training.
One would think that there would be ample engineering talent in metro Phoenix, considering that Intel has a large presence there, with two fabs already in existence and two more being planned, with a projected construction cost for both of $20 billion. (My wife worked for several years for Intel in the suburb of Chandler, and my son worked there as a summer intern during engineering school.)
This raises the question of how a tiny island nation lacking in natural resources can be such an engineering and manufacturing powerhouse, as well as being a country with a low crime rate, low poverty, low drug addiction, little if any homelessness, and high social cohesiveness.
Diversity doesn’t explain it. As with mainland China, Han Chinese comprise 70% of the population, and they set the cultural norms and hold the majority of leadership positions.
Perhaps the explanation can be found in the legacy of a rice culture and the dominant spiritual beliefs of Buddhism and Taoism, combined with a Confucian philosophy. But I posit that the best explanation for Taiwan’s success is its K-12 education system and culture.
First, the population is universally committed to education, and not in a phony, superficial, virtue-signaling way. Helicopter parenting is a social norm.
Second, teachers are highly esteemed in the community. It helps that a Taiwanese teaching degree is academically rigorous and that colleges of education are highly selective.
On a related note, Norway went from being in the middle of the pack in international test scores to being at the top or near the top, by a similar national commitment to rigor and selectivity.
Third, there is a strong emphasis on standardized test scores.
Fourth, Taiwanese children are well-behaved and can be trusted to show up on time, to do their work, and to not require constant supervision. It’s a safe bet that schools don’t have resource officers (police officers) on duty.
Fifth, Taiwan has an extensive early education program. This is a true education program. It is not phony early education or a disguised child care program, as is the case in the U.S. Over 96% of Taiwanese five-year-olds are reported to be enrolled in pre-school.
Sixth, statistics can’t be found for Taiwan, but teachers in the nation are probably not buried under layers of bureaucracy, as they are in America.
To the above point, from 2000 to 2019, the number of administrators in American public school districts increased by 87.6%, while the number of students and teachers increased by 7.6% and 8.7%, respectively. (Source: the Imprimis newsletter of November 2022, based on U.S. Department of Education statistics.)
Seventh, education in Taiwan is not held hostage by politically powerful, rapacious teacher unions, unions that make it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers.
In summary, Taiwan’s education system and culture are conducive to making sophisticated computer chips, while America’s education system and culture are conducive to making and eating potato chips.