National Edition

Is the STEM shortage a manufactured crisis?

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

“Part of the problem about the ‘myth’ argument is the notion is that we’ve got different definitions of what constitutes a STEM job,” said Rosen. “More jobs are being created now that are clearly STEM dependent. And if you graduate with a degree in one of the sciences, you are a very interesting candidate to organizations that work in financial sector or consultants because you have demonstrated problem-solving ability.”

STEM grads may also be underprepared to meet the needs of STEM employers, says Steven Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Tech Council and chairman of the Tech Councils of North America, which are both trade associations for science and technology companies. In his work with technology businesses, “the number one issue companies are concerned or complain about is access to talent and quantity and quality,” he said. In other words, just because someone graduates with a STEM degree does not mean she is actually prepared and qualified for the STEM jobs that need to be filled.

Corporations and immigration

The reason Americans believe there is a STEM shortage when one doesn't exist is corporate interests, Charette says. He argues that an oversupply of workers benefits corporations because it helps keep wages down.

“Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job, or guarantee them decades of stable employment,” he said.

Arguments over the existence of a STEM crisis have become more pronounced as the government contemplates allowing more skilled workers into the country on H-1B visas, a move that is supported by those who believe that a shortage in STEM exists and needs to be filled by high-skill immigrant workers.

But skeptics of the STEM shortage argue that corporations have an economic incentive to bring in workers from other countries who are willing to work for lower pay in order to keep the wage level low, even if there are qualified Americans to do the jobs. Charette points out that Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, acknowledged that high-skilled immigrant visas “would suppress the skilled-wage level.”

But the evidence that H-1B visas are merely an attempt to keep wages in STEM fields down appears somewhat murky and incomplete. According to a May study from the Brookings Institute, a policy think-tank, data show that H-1B visa holders earn more than comparable native-born workers and wages are increasing in occupations with most H-1B requests, both indicators that immigrant workers are fulfilling high-demand jobs with a limited domestic supply of workers.

However, the Brookings study also found that among H-1B visas issued, about 25 percent were for “occupations that typically require only an associate’s degree, meaning that the current U.S. workforce could be trained to do these jobs at relatively little cost.” Adding this to the fact that not all STEM jobs are experiencing the same shortage, the Brookings study's authors concluded that they needed more data to determine whether H-1B visas were actually filling an unmet demand.

“Immigrants are great for the country but there’s no reason to give this particular group of immigrants a leg up in the process,” Kuehn said.

Areas of consensus

While there is disagreement over whether a STEM shortage exists, parties on both sides of the debate agree that math and science education is important for America's youths. Students who have a good grounding in basic STEM concepts are more likely to be high-level thinkers who can make informed decisions about the world around them, experts say.

Education is not solely about the job you’re going to get,” Rosen said. “It’s about turning out informed citizenry who can do critical thinking, interpret data and participate in democracy. There are going to be jobs out there five years from now that you and I can’t even imagine. STEM is certainly going to be a part of that.”

Charette concedes that people are suffering from a “STEM knowledge shortage.” To that end, he said, “improving everyone’s STEM skills would clearly be good for the workforce and for people’s employment prospects, for public policy debates, and for everyday tasks like balancing checkbooks and calculating risks.”

In order to make STEM subjects more important and appealing to kids, Zylstra says there needs to be a shift in cultural priorities. “In America, we tend to celebrate things like sports,” he said. “Instead, we need to be celebrating science and technology.”

EMAIL: dmerling@deseretnews.com

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