September 2, 2013
THIS PIECE FROM THE IEEE SPECTRUM HAS RELEVANCE TO THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE: The STEM Crisis Is a Myth: Forget the dire predictions of a looming shortfall of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians.
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. . . .
Another surprise was the apparent mismatch between earning a STEM degree and having a STEM job. Of the 7.6 million STEM workers counted by the Commerce Department, only 3.3 million possess STEM degrees. Viewed another way, about 15 million U.S. residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline, but three-fourths of them—11.4 million—work outside of STEM.
The departure of STEM graduates to other fields starts early. In 2008, the NSF surveyed STEM graduates who’d earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 2006 and 2007. It found that 2 out of 10 were already working in non-STEM fields. And 10 years after receiving a STEM degree, 58 percent of STEM graduates had left the field, according to a 2011 study from Georgetown University.
The takeaway? At least in the United States, you don’t need a STEM degree to get a STEM job, and if you do get a degree, you won’t necessarily work in that field after you graduate. If there is in fact a STEM worker shortage, wouldn’t you expect more people with STEM degrees to be filling those jobs? And if many STEM jobs can be filled by people who don’t have STEM degrees, then why the big push to get more students to pursue STEM?
“If there was really a STEM labor market crisis, you’d be seeing very different behaviors from companies,” notes Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York state. “You wouldn’t see companies cutting their retirement contributions, or hiring new workers and giving them worse benefits packages. Instead you would see signing bonuses, you’d see wage increases. You would see these companies really training their incumbent workers.”
“None of those things are observable,” Hira says. “In fact, they’re operating in the opposite way.”
Indeed. So why the contrived shortage and demands for more STEM education and visas? “Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job, or guarantee them decades of stable employment. So having an oversupply of workers, whether domestically educated or imported, is to their benefit.”