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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.

“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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