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Stymied by the Truth of STEM

30 September 2016

In May 2016, the third annual U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index showed a continuing dependence on foreign workers to fill STEM jobs. The Index represents an interactive measure of science, technology, engineering and mathematics activity in the United States relative to the year 2000, and acts as a snapshot of STEM jobs and education.

It seems contradictory that on one hand there is an increase in STEM degrees and hiring, yet a continuation of STEM worker shortage in the U.S. How can that be? The Index cites growth. There were 30,835 additional STEM graduates and 230,246 additional STEM jobs from 2014–2015, and many of the graduates were foreign students that returned to their countries after graduation.

STEM shortage or surplus?

There are proponents on both sides of the shortage/surplus debate regarding STEM workers in the U.S. For example:

  • Globally, STEM worker shortfalls are said to number in the hundreds of thousands or millions.
  • President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2012 predicted that a million more STEM graduates would be required.
  • Until there are sufficient workers, major technology companies support raising the number of H-1B visas 3x to cover the shortage.
  • Evidence shows that STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from graduates to mid- and late-career Ph.D. holders, struggle to find work as many companies lay off thousands of STEM workers.

Annually, U.S. schools grant more STEM degrees than there are available jobs. When including H-1B visa holders and existing STEM degree holders, where is the shortage?

One of the most-often-cited reports on STEM came out of Georgetown University in 2011. The study estimated there will be more than 2.4 million STEM jobs available in the U.S. between 2008 and 2018. Of that number, 1.1 million would be newly created jobs, and the balance would be jobs to replace workers that retire or move to non-STEM fields. The net STEM vacancy reported was 277,000 annually. The researchers did not, however, estimate the huge loss of 370,000 STEM jobs in 2011 due to the recession.

Georgetown stated the best indicator of a STEM shortfall would be a widespread rise in salaries. This has not been the case.

If there were a serious shortfall, wouldn’t the laws of supply and demand come rapidly to the rescue—with salaries rising and benefits, including gym membership and other nice perks, plus outrageous profit sharing?

So is there a shortfall of STEM workers or not?

Multiple works and reports indicate there is and there is not a shortage:

The realities seem to be that there are shortages and gluts, depending on the areas involved and the timing.

From 2005 to 2015, computer and mathematics-related occupations accounted for 79.5% of job growth in STEM occupations, adding 1,123,000 jobs during that period. Overall, however, STEM unemployment rates have just barely returned to their pre-recession levels. From 2005–2015, aerospace engineering employment grew by 53%, while electrical and electronics engineering jobs decreased by 14% and computer programming jobs declined by 17.4%.

Since 2010, recovery began to take hold in earnest as unemployment decreased from 4.5% in 2010 to 2.6% in 2015. Computer and mathematics added 838,000 jobs between 2010 and 2015; architecture and engineering added 335,000 jobs; yet 300,000 architecture and engineering jobs were lost between 2008 and 2010.

In 2015, nearly 531,000 guest worker visas were issued to employers for categories H-1B, L-1, optional practical training, O, TN (NAFTA professionals), and E3 workers (Australian professionals). Looking at all STEM workers, 11.3% were not U.S. citizens in April 2016. That number rises to 13.8% in computer and mathematical occupations.

In the technology industry, there is a longstanding claim that employers do not replace U.S. professionals with temporary guest workers. However companies like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and others continue to use H-1B visas for so-called difficult-to-fill positions, which could be filled by albeit more expensive U.S. STEM graduates. Estimates indicate that close to 50% of U.S. STEM graduates are not hired in STEM-related fields.

For the long term, however, maybe the more important question should be:

Are we competitive?

According to the National Science and Math Initiative, the problem is still our education. For all you hear of STEM projects, initiatives, competitions, and so forth, these are the findings:

  • U.S. students recently finished 27th in math and 20th in science in the rankings of 34 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  • The U.S. may be short as many as three million high-skilled workers by 2018. Two-thirds of those jobs will require at least some post-secondary education. 
  • The competitive edge of the U.S. economy has eroded sharply over the last decade, according to a new study by a non-partisan research group.
  • The prestigious World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 48th in quality of math and science education.
  • 25 years ago, the U.S. led the world in high-school and college graduation rates. Today the U.S. has dropped to 20th and 16th.
  • 69% of high-school graduates are not ready for college-level science.

The real STEM crisis is one of literacy: today’s students are not receiving a solid grounding in science, math and engineering. Four-year degrees continually take five years as remedial work is necessary. While it is great to have competitions and throw money at the problem, without a solid grasp of the basics of education, how can we possibly regain our place? We have been unable to get back to where we once were.

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