Is the US facing a critical shortage of STEM skills? Do we have enough STEM workers to meet the demands of the labor market? Are enough young people choosing STEM careers so we can meet future demands?
Such serious concerns have been expressed in a number of national studies over the past two decades. In 2005, for example, the National Innovation Initiative listed “Build the Base of Scientists and Engineers” as one of its top recommendations, noting that “unless the United States takes swift action, the demand for S&E talent will far outstrip supply. The number of jobs requiring technical training is growing at five times the rate of other occupations.”
Two years later, a major National Academies study, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, called for increasing America’s STEM talent pool by providing 25,000 new 4-year competitive undergraduate scholarships to US citizens enrolled in the physical sciences, the life sciences, engineering and math; and by funding 5,000 new graduate fellowships each year for US citizens pursuing graduate studies in areas of national need.
And in 2012, a report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology wrote: “Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade if the country is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology. To meet this goal, the United States will need to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about 34% annually over current rates.”
There are, however, different views. In September of 2013, IEEE Spectrum published an article with the provocative title The STEM Crisis is a Myth: Forget the dire predictions of a looming shortfall of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, by Robert Charette. “Every year U.S. schools grant more STEM degrees than there are available jobs,” wrote Charette. “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… 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 similar view was expressed by Michael Teitelbaum, - a Sloan Foundation Vice President at the time, - when he testified before the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation in November of 2007. In his testimony, Teitelbaum said:
“First, no one who has come to the question with an open mind has been able to find any objective data suggesting general shortages of scientists and engineers… I would add here that these findings of no general shortage are entirely consistent with isolated shortages of skilled people in narrow fields or in specific technologies that are quite new or growing explosively.”
“Second, there are substantially more scientists and engineers graduating from U.S. universities that can find attractive career openings in the U.S. workforce. Indeed science and engineering careers in the U.S. appear to be relatively unattractive - relative that is to alternative professional career paths available to students with strong capabilities in science and math…”
“[T]he postdoc population, which has grown very rapidly in U.S. universities and is recruited increasingly from abroad, looks more like a pool of low-cost research lab workers with limited career prospects than a high-quality training program for soon-to-be academic researchers. Indeed, if the truth be told - only a very small percentage of those in the current postdoc pool have any realistic prospects of gaining a regular faculty position.”
A NY Times article recently added that “The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle… The lure of a tenured job in academia is great - it means a secure, prestigious position directing a lab that does cutting-edge experiments, often carried out by underlings. Yet although many yearn for such jobs, fewer than half of those who earn science or engineering doctorates end up in the sort of academic positions that directly use what they were trained for.”
How do we reconcile these widely different views of the STEM labor market? An article published last year, STEM crisis or STEM surplus? Yes and yes - by Yi Xue, at the time an MIT graduate student, and MIT professor Richard Larson, - tried to make sense of this ongoing STEM debate. Their answer, as is often the case with such complex questions, is that both sides are right. It all depends. STEM includes a variety of disciplines, degree levels and employment sectors. While some occupations do indeed have a shortage of qualified talent, others have a surplus.
“The upshot is that there may not be a STEM crisis in all job categories, but instead just in select ones at certain degree levels and in certain locations… A job segment that traditionally has a shortage of workers may at some times have a surplus and vice versa. Thus, it is probably far more accurate to state that, within STEM job categories, there is a crisis or a surplus depending on the circumstances at the time the categories are investigated.”
The article examined the heterogeneous nature of STEM occupations on the basis of statistical data, current research papers, interviews with company recruiters across a range of industries, and anecdotal evidence from newspapers. It focused on graduates with postsecondary education within the STEM domain across the three main employment sectors: academia, government and the private sector. Their analysis yielded the following findings:
- “The STEM labor market is heterogeneous. There are both shortages and surpluses of STEM workers, depending on the particular job market segment.”
- “In the academic job market, there is no noticeable shortage in any discipline. In fact, there are signs of an oversupply of Ph.D.’s vying for tenure-track faculty positions in many disciplines (e.g., biomedical sciences, physical sciences).”
- “In the government and government-related job sector, certain STEM disciplines have a shortage of positions at the Ph.D. level (e.g., materials science engineering, nuclear engineering) and in general (e.g., systems engineers, cybersecurity, and intelligence professionals) due to the U.S. citizenship requirement. In contrast, an oversupply of biomedical engineers is seen at the Ph.D. level, and there are transient shortages of electrical engineers and mechanical engineers at advanced-degree levels.”
- “In the private sector, software developers, petroleum engineers, data scientists, and those in skilled trades are in high demand; there is an abundant supply of biomedical, chemistry, and physics Ph.D.’s; and transient shortages and surpluses of electrical engineers occur from time to time.”
- “The geographic location of the position affects hiring ease or difficulty.”
So, is there a STEM crisis or a STEM surplus? “The answer is that both exist… As our society relies further on technology for economic development and prosperity, the vitality of the STEM workforce will continue to be a cause for concern.”