Negative consequences of believing the STEM shortage myth

by Grace

In his book Falling Behind: Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent, author Michael Teitelbaum challenges the commonly held belief that the United States suffers from a shortage of STEM workers.

The truth is that there is little credible evidence of the claimed widespread shortages in the U.S. science and engineering workforce….

A compelling body of research is now available, from many leading academic researchers and from respected research organizations such as the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation, and the Urban Institute. No one has been able to find any evidence indicating current widespread labor market shortages or hiring difficulties in science and engineering occupations that require bachelors degrees or higher, although some are forecasting high growth in occupations that require post-high school training but not a bachelors degree. All have concluded that U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more. Were there to be a genuine shortage at present, there would be evidence of employers raising wage offers to attract the scientists and engineers they want. But the evidence points in the other direction: Most studies report that real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations.

Although some STEM fields are booming and employers find it difficult to fill professional positions, by no means is that true across the board.

Teitelbaum lists five episodes of STEM ‘“alarm/boom/bust” cycles since World War II’ where in all cases government policies intended to address false claims of shortages only exacerbated the problem.

… Each lasted about 10 to 15 years, and was initiated by alarms of “shortages,” followed by policies to increase the supply of scientists and engineers. Unfortunately most were followed by painful busts—mass layoffs, hiring freezes, and funding cuts that inflicted severe damage to careers of both mature professionals and the booming numbers of emerging graduates, while also discouraging new entrants to these fields.

The current administration has fallen into the same trap, pushing for more STEM graduates who may actually find jobs in short supply.  This year New York began allocating taxpayer funds to encourage college students to pursue STEM majors.

Ignoring “science-based evidence” produces “large unintended costs”.

Ironically the vigorous claims of shortages concern occupations in science and engineering, yet manage to ignore or reject most of the science-based evidence on the subject. The repeated past cycles of “alarm/boom/bust” have misallocated public and private resources by periodically expanding higher education in science and engineering beyond levels for which there were attractive career opportunities. In so doing they produced large unintended costs for those talented students who devoted many years of advanced education to prepare for careers that turned out to be unattractive by the time they graduated, or who later experienced massive layoffs in mid-career with few prospects to be rehired.

George Leef is another critic of these government interventions.

… Strong business and educational groups lobby for nice-sounding policies that benefit themselves, frequently employing dubious arguments and misleading claims. The costs of the resulting pro-STEM policies are dispersed among the public, and fall particularly hard on the unfortunate individuals who invest a lot of money and years of their lives in pursuit of credentials that are apt to become almost worthless.

———

Michael S. Teitelbaum, “The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage”, The Atlantic, March 19 2014.

George Leef, “True Or False: America Desperately Needs More STEM Workers”, Forbes, June 6, 2014.

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2 Comments to “Negative consequences of believing the STEM shortage myth”

  1. There are several problems with the “STEM shortage”. The first is that there is no shortage of people who are good at the S fields. It is really hard to get a job in physics or biology. Most of the shortage has to do with the E part, and the missing C (computing). In other words, the shortages are to some extent in engineering, and these days, in mathematics. But the big one is in computing.

    Here is the reality – the shortage even in the hottest field, computing, is really a shortage of people with the skills that employers desire RIGHT NOW. Employers really need mathematicians who can slot into finance, or into Big Data. When I was at KDD, which is the big conference for data mining and analytics, I saw an absolute feeding frenzy. All of the big companies were there, and were practically tripping over themselves to grab PhD candidates for an on the spot interview. There is a similar feeding frenzy going on for computer science majors who can do data mining and machine intelligence, or who understand advanced areas like bioinformatics, secure software techniques, or massively parallel architectures.

    But if you are a run of the mill C++ developer, or Cisco network technician, or website developer, there is no feeding frenzy. You can get steady work – for now. But as soon as the technology changes, or the economy goes downward, you are likely to get laid off. And if your technology goes away, you are doomed. Just ask all the old Cobol/mainframe guys. I know a bunch of them. They all had lots of work until the 90’s, but by 2000, every one of those guys had been permanently laid off and went to different careers.

    So there are two big problems. One is that you really can’t be average in the tech world. The second is that companies are really really bad at nurturing technical careers over the long term.

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  2. “you really can’t be average in the tech world”

    That’s an interesting way to put it. What about all the master’s degree holders who studied the in-demand tech areas? It seems that maybe you can be “average” in that field as long as you possess the right skills and knowledge. But maybe not.

    “companies are really really bad at nurturing technical careers over the long term”

    I believe that’s true for many of not most places. Although it’s more easily seen in technology, there is a greater burden on all employees to keep themselves current and not depend on their employers to guide their career growth.

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