STEM Worker Shortage Sparks Contentious Debate

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

A shortage of U.S.-born science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates has been publicized for decades, but even seasoned policy experts can't agree if the problem is real.

During a contentious March 12 debate hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, policy analysts sparred over the potential deficit of STEM workers.

Studies, papers and talking heads have said the country will face a major brain drain as older workers retire and fewer students pursue careers in STEM fields.Millions of dollars have been poured into programs meant to stop the hemorrhaging, but experts say it continues.

Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Hal Salzman, professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, argued that there is no STEM shortage.

Robert Atkinson, president of ITIF, and Jonathan Rothwell, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution, contended that there is one.

When examining the STEM education and workforce situation, one must take into account that it is largely fueled by political interests, Hira said.

"We should be very clear about political motivations and political interest,” Hira said. “There are multiple stakeholders with conflicting interests on these things.”

From corporations looking to keep wages down, to employees trying to increase competition for their services, there are numerous motivations in play, Hira said.

Scores of studies have looked at STEM graduation, employment and salary rates and have come to varying conclusions, Hira said.

“There are … a lot of clever techniques — I would call them tricks — talking about STEM employment growth and wages relative to the rest of the population,” Hira said. “People [are] picking and choosing little bits and pieces without us having, I think, progress toward agreeing on the right kinds of analytic frameworks to use, how do we use vacancies [and] how do we look at unemployment rates.”

Atkinson took offense at Hira’s comments on questionable practices and tricks.

“I really didn’t use the words ‘clever tricks’ with Ron or Hal’s work, because I don’t think that’s the right way to frame it — and I really don’t appreciate it, Ron, when you imply that our analysis are clever tricks,” Atkinson said.

Demand for STEM workers is increasing as fewer students pursue careers in the field, Atkinson said. He refuted the popular claim that the pool of STEM students in college increases throughout freshman year and graduation and therefore, the "leaky pipeline" concept is untrue. While that is a fact, it is misleading because many students enter the college system with an undeclared major and move over, he said.

"If you just look at the people who come in with a declared major and then what they leave with, the actual leaky pipeline is quite leaky," Atkinson said.

Atkinson cited a study that found 44 percent of STEM freshmen switch out of the major whereas only 30 percent of humanities majors do so.

According to employment vacancy data, there are five jobs openings for every unemployed computer worker, Rothwell said.

"In fact, there are more job vacancies than there are job workers for all four STEM occupations. On the other hand, if you're a construction worker, you are competing against 10 other unemployed construction workers," Rothwell said.

However, the STEM shortage "hysteria" is just a smoke screen for a larger problem of worker quality, Salzman said.

"Where I think the STEM shortage issue derails us is probably the quality question, … [such as] producing the right kind of people [and] focusing on the right skills," Salzman said.
Salzman said employers want employees who have comprehensive skills, who excel at communication and can work across cultural and organizational borders.

"What they want are these broad-based skills, and that's really where education should be focused. But when you hit this very narrowly defined STEM shortage … [with] more math, more science, and look at what the schools respond to, it's pushing out other subjects, other approaches," Salzman said.

The STEM problem cannot be discussed in broad terms, Hira said. Different labor pools within the fields have varying levels of job opportunities.

“Even within electrical and electronics engineering, power engineering is doing really well right now,” Hira said. “We need to build a thicker and richer description of these different labor markets and understand them. … Doing these sort of broad brush things about how there is a broad-based, widespread systemic shortage of workers doesn’t make much sense.”

More attention needs to be focused on career development for incumbent STEM workers, Hira said.

“In all of the discussions, we have been overly focused on degree production. The most important STEM workers are incumbent STEM workers. The largest share of STEM workers who will be in STEM … 10 years from now are current STEM workers,” Hira said.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology, Research and Development

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