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The STEM Crisis Is a Myth

Posted on 07-Sep-2013
Topics: Effects of Immigration on American Workers  

From IEEE Spectrum:

You must have seen the warning a thousand times: Too few young people study scientific or technical subjects, businesses can’t find enough workers in those fields, and the country’s competitive edge is threatened.

It pretty much doesn't matter what country you’re talking about—the United States is facing this crisis, as is Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, China, Brazil, South Africa, Singapore, India…the list goes on. In many of these countries, the predicted shortfall of STEM (short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workers is supposed to number in the hundreds of thousands or even the millions. A 2012 report by President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, for instance, stated that over the next decade, 1 million additional STEM graduates will be needed. In the U.K., the Royal Academy of Engineering reported last year that the nation will have to graduate 100 000 STEM majors every year until 2020 just to stay even with demand. Germany, meanwhile, is said to have a shortage of about 210 000 workers in what’s known there as the MINT disciplines—mathematics, computer science, natural sciences, and technology.

The situation is so dismal that governments everywhere are now pouring billions of dollars each year into myriad efforts designed to boost the ranks of STEM workers. President Obama has called for government and industry to train 10 000 new U.S. engineers every year as well as 100 000 additional STEM teachers by 2020. And until those new recruits enter the workforce, tech companies like Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft are lobbying to boost the number of H-1B visas—temporary immigration permits for skilled workers—from 65 000 per year to as many as 180 000. The European Union is similarly introducing the new Blue Card visa to bring in skilled workers from outside the EU. The government of India has said it needs to add 800 new universities, in part to avoid a shortfall of 1.6 million university-educated engineers by the end of the decade.

And yet, alongside such dire projections, you’ll also find reports suggesting just the opposite—that there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs. One study found, for example, that wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have largely stagnated since 2000. 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.

A Matter of Supply vs. Demand: Every year U.S. schools grant more STEM degrees than there are available jobs. When you factor in H-1B visa holders, existing STEM degree holders, and the like, it’s hard to make a case that there’s a STEM labor shortage.

To parse the simultaneous claims of both a shortage and a surplus of STEM workers, we’ll need to delve into the data behind the debate, how it got going more than a half century ago, and the societal, economic, and nationalistic biases that have perpetuated it. And what that dissection reveals is that there is indeed a STEM crisis—just not the one everyone’s been talking about. The real STEM crisis is one of literacy: the fact that today’s students are not receiving a solid grounding in science, math, and engineering.

In preparing this article, I went through hundreds of reports, articles, and white papers from the past six decades. There were plenty of data, but there was also an extraordinary amount of inconsistency. Who exactly is a STEM worker: somebody with a bachelor’s degree or higher in a STEM discipline? Somebody whose job requires use of a STEM subject? What about someone who manages STEM workers? And which disciplines and industries fall under the STEM umbrella?

Such definitions obviously affect the counts. For example, in the United States, both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Commerce track the number of STEM jobs, but using different metrics. According to Commerce, 7.6 million individuals worked in STEM jobs in 2010, or about 5.5 percent of the U.S. workforce. That number includes professional and technical support occupations in the fields of computer science and mathematics, engineering, and life and physical sciences as well as management. The NSF, by contrast, counts 12.4 million science and engineering jobs in the United States, including a number of areas that the Commerce Department excludes, such as health-care workers (4.3 million) and psychologists and social scientists (518 000).


View the original article for more data and analysis.


[1] "The STEM Crisis Is a Myth", Robert N. Charette, IEEE Spectrum, 30-Aug-2013

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