STEM is a new buzz-phrase on the scene, standing for 'science, technology, engineering, and math'. Some add A for art to make STEAM, highlighting the perception by some that art and design need to be integrated as part of the process; others say that the A is there to pacify the liberal arts folks.
There are two camps in the STEM jobs debate: those who say there are too few people to fill a growing need and those who say that there are fewer jobs available than there are professionals. Let's look at both sides.
This is going to be about 90 percent facts, 10 percent editorial. Bear with me.
"TOO FEW STEM PROS"
This article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published on April 23 says that the pool of talent isn't enough to meet employment demand. STEM employment has risen by more than 30 percent in the country since 2000 to 16.8 million jobs, according to US News and Raytheon's STEM Index. However, a survey of high school students indicates that their aptitude and interest in pursuing STEM hasn’t kept up with the demand for workers, and that high school student interest levels in STEM have fallen below where they were in 2000. Georgian business executives have complained that there are too few qualified employees to fill tech jobs in the state, and that they must import people from other states.
Linda Rosen of Change the Equation published an article on the Huffington Post, claiming that the STEM crisis is not a myth. She countered this article by Robert Charette in the IEEE Spectrum, a publication of the Institution of Electronical and Electronics Engineers, a major professional engineering organization. She cites the NSF's report that the STEM workforce grew from 182000 to 5.4 million between 1950 and 2009, and that it grew 20 percent between 2000 and 2010, amid the economic downturn. She also cites a report by Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce that predicts that the total number of STEM jobs will grow 26 percent between 2010 and 2020, and that professional and technical jobs in healthcare will grow 31 percent in this time. She cites research from her own company, as well, which found that between 2009 and 2012, there were nearly two STEM-focused job postings for every unemployed STEM professional, and that during those same years, unemployment in STEM stood at just over 4 percent, well less than the 9.3 percent unemployment rates for non-STEM workers. Other reports from Georgetown, the Commerce Department, and the Information Technology Innovation Foundation show that they have risen faster than non-STEM wages, even in recent years.
She acknowledges that Charette is right to point out that people with PhDs in some sciences can have a tough time finding a job that matches their degrees, and adds the coda that these jobs represent only a very small sliver of the STEM job market. She claims that there is high demand for STEM workers who have two-year degrees or certificates rather than bachelor's degrees or higher, and that the Commerce Department's statistics of 7.6 million STEM workers contain only 3.3 million who possess STEM degrees. In addition, she says that when business leaders in Change the Equation's coalition talk about the STEM worker shortage, they are often referring to the trouble they have finding qualified STEM workers below the bachelor's level. She also says that there is high demand for STEM professionals in non-STEM jobs such as finance and management, and that they earn 12 percent more than those who don't hold degrees in STEM.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation published a report that says that the influx of H1-B visa holders is not enough to ameliorate the shortfall of American STEM university graduates.
The National Math and Science Initiative says that 60 percent of the new jobs that will open in the 21st century will require skills possessed by only 20 percent of the current workforce, and that the U.S. may be short as many as three million high-skills workers by 2018.
CNBC and Career Cast's 10 best jobs of 2014 were all STEM jobs.
"TOO FEW STEM JOBS"
I'm not going to lie; I fall into this camp, and it should come as little surprise to find that most of the proponents of this side are like me - graduates, students, and professionals.
The Center for Immigration Studies (whose tagline is 'Low Immigration, Pro-Immigrant' if you want an idea of its particular ideology) has a report by fellow David North with some back-of-the-envelope calculations on American STEM jobs. The takeaway message is that according to his sources (a combination of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy), the ratio of American STEM degrees to American STEM jobs will be 1.55. In addition, he references a report by the Economic Policy Institute (more on that here) found that one-third to one-half of IT job holders, in particular, were foreign guest workers. A further analysis of the IT industry by Daniel Costa of the EPI found that 68 percent of the workers in the IT industry do not have a computer-related degree and 31 percent of them do not even have a STEM degree.
Let's revisit Daniel Charette, mentioned above. Here's his article. He mentions some studies by the NSF and Georgetown. The first thing that jumped out at me is that the NSF's caveat “Projections of employment growth are plagued by uncertain assumptions and are notoriously difficult to make” is buried among other information in the paper and not explicitly called attention to; an organization devoted to supporting science in this country should be forthright about the limitations of a study. In the Georgetown study, it was estimated that that nearly two-thirds of the STEM job openings in the United States, or about 180000 jobs per year, will require bachelor’s degrees, and Charette states that if you apply the Commerce Department’s definition of STEM to the NSF’s annual count of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, that means about 252000 STEM graduates emerged in 2009. He extends his reasoning further: even if all new STEM openings were open only to individuals who earned a STEM bachelor's degree in a given year, that still leaves 70,000 graduates unable to get a job in their chosen field.
According to this article in the Atlantic, research from organizations such as the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation, and the Urban Institute has revealed several apparently disguised problems: First, real wages have been flat or slow growing, and unemployment has been as high or higher than other comparably-skilled jobs. There is also considerable difference between fields, industries, time periods, and geographic locations. In particular, scientists and engineers experience higher employment than healthcare professionals. High unemployment rates prevail for recent graduates in fields like engineering (7.0 percent), computer science (7.8 percent) and information systems (11.7 percent).
Geography is a problem: metropolitan areas have the biggest concentration of STEM professionals. The National Association of Realtors says that Silicon Valley (metro San Jose) has the highest median house prices in the country, at $775000, which is nearly four times higher than the national median.
There is a boom and bust nature to the 'STEM crisis', with 10-15 years of recruitment followed by layoffs, hiring freezes, and funding cuts. The boom and bust has gone like this, according to the Atlantic:
- Round one from the decade immediately following World War II, waning a decade later.
- Round two following the Sputnik launches in 1957 but waning sharply by the late 1960s, leading to a bust of serious magnitude in the 1970s.
- Round three from the 1980s Reagan defense buildup, alarming Federal reports such as “A Nation at Risk” (1983), and new Federal funding for the “war on cancer.” Most of these had waned by the late 1980s, contributing to an ensuing bust in the early 1990s.
- Round four from the mid-1990s, driven by concurrent booms in several high-tech industries (e.g. information technology, internet, telecommunications, biotech), followed by concurrent busts beginning around 2001.
- Round five from the rapid doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget between 1998 and 2003, followed by a bust when subsequent funding flattened.
Back to Charette's article. Why does he reason that this 'crisis' exists? He refers to Michael Teitelbaum, a fellow at Harvard Law school, who says the cycle usually starts when “someone or some group sounds the alarm that there is a critical crisis of insufficient numbers of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians” and as a result the country “is in jeopardy of either a national security risk or of falling behind economically.” In the 1950s, Teitelbaum says that America was in competition mode with foreign states: the Soviet Union was producing 95000 scientists and engineers a year while the United States was producing only about 57000. In the 1980s, it was Japan. Now it is China and India. This is not only a problem in the United States; in India, the director general of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Vijay Kumar Saraswat, says “a meagre four persons out of every 1000 are choosing S&T or research (in India), as compared to 110 in Japan, 76 in Germany and Israel, 55 in USA, 46 in Korea and 8 in China.” Leaders in South Africa and Brazil cite similar statistics. Governments respond with money and/or visas and the shortage ends up being a myth, at which point the bust happens.
Businesses are also at fault: companies want to pay as little as possible, so they engineer a labor pool that outstrips their actual need and keep wages down. Alan Greenspan himself advocated boosting the number of skilled immigrants entering the United States so as to “suppress” the wages of their U.S. counterparts, which he considered too high. Governments also push the STEM myth because more STEM professionals is perceived as important for innovation and, in particular, national defense; this also benefits universities by bringing in more money, and benefits the economy by pushing STEM professionals elsewhere in the economy (where, as said above, they make 12 percent more wages than their non-STEM counterparts).
To all the problems listed above I'd add my own thoughts: a lot of students like me want training to fill the most high-level jobs, such as that of university professor/principal investigator (my own goal); postdoctoral unemployment is high, competition for the tenure-track position is fierce, grant money is hard to come by (a major source of funding), and... well, there are other things I can't remember offhand.
My own personal solution to this is to take businesses to task for creating a glut of positions where they're seeking undereducated workers that they can pay very little and toss around (not only are they perhaps not capable of getting higher degrees, they're as a result probably eminently more abusable) and to give those of us that want and have bachelor's and graduate degrees and high aspirations our due diligence. Old scientists and engineers still die, as does everyone else, including old businesspeople. You probably have your own ideas; let's get a discussion going (for those of us so concerned).