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Is the STEM shortage a manufactured crisis?

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 5:55 p.m. MDT

Some skeptics are challenging the idea that the United States is facing a shortage of workers in science and technology fields.

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America is facing a shortage of workers in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — at least according to popular wisdom and belief. But an emerging group of critics is arguing that the STEM shortage may not be nearly as bad as popular sentiment has made it out to be, if it even exists at all.

In a recent article in IEEE Spectrum magazine, Robert Charette, president of ITABHI Corp., a consulting firm focused on business and technology risk management, contends “the STEM crisis is a myth.”

“Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers,” Charette said.

Arguing that powerful corporate interests are behind the “myth” of a STEM shortage, Charette and other critics are questioning whether America actually has a skills gap in the STEM jobs market.

But defenders argue that the shortage of STEM workers is real, and the country will need to fill the growing demand. President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers found last year that the United States will need more than 1 million STEM workers over the next decade.

Obama said in his State of the Union address last year that the country needs to produce more STEM teachers and train unemployed workers in STEM fields to fill the unmet demand. And a U.S. Department of Commerce report found that STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17.0 percent from 2008 to 2018. STEM jobs, it said, “are the jobs of the future.”

Shortage or no shortage?

Those who are skeptical of the claim that the United States is experiencing a shortage of STEM workers say that none of the usual economic indicators of a lack of supply of workers — like low levels of unemployment and rising wages — are present in STEM fields.

An April study from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think-tank, found that for every two students that U.S. colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job, and wages in STEM fields have remained relatively flat over the past 10 years.

Daniel Kuehn, an economist and co-author of the EPI study, said that the data doesn’t support the idea of a shortage in workers STEM fields. “There are no signals in the market that it might be experiencing labor shortage,” he said. “If there was a labor shortage, you would expect to see salary increases or open vacancies, but we don’t find any evidence of that. There’s no indication that the market is not adjusting to fluctuations in demand.”

In Charette’s article, he argues that data back up his assertion that there is no STEM shortage. He takes a Georgetown study that said 180,000 STEM jobs per year will require bachelor’s degrees, but that according to government numbers, about 252,000 people graduated with STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2009.

“So even if all the STEM openings were entry-level positions and even if only new STEM bachelor’s holders could compete for them, that still leaves 70,000 graduates unable to get a job in their chosen field,” Charette concludes.

However, those who believe a STEM shortage exists say that studies like the ones Charette references are cherry-picking data. A recent study from Change the Equation, a nonprofit coalition of CEOs concerned with improving STEM learning in the United States, found that job postings and openings in STEM field exceeded qualified applicants by 2.1 to one, and that STEM graduates have lower unemployment rates and higher wages than their non-STEM counterparts.

Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, also said that part of the reason STEM applicants may not be working in STEM fields after graduation is by choice, with STEM graduates pursuing higher pay as Wall Street investment bankers, as patent lawyers or in management at tech companies.

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