The STEM Crisis is Real

Stem Education

Recently Robert Charette penned a blog post on IEEE Spectrum titled “The STEM Crisis is a Myth,” which makes the case that rather than having a shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers, the United States has a surplus. Unfortunately his analysis is flawed. Indeed, the post is strikingly similar to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) (which Charette cites) in April, and about which the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation published a comprehensive rebuttal.

First, like EPI, Charette argues that STEM graduates are not obtaining STEM jobs:

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?

Yes, it’s true: some STEM graduates don’t obtain STEM jobs. But Charette is missing a baseline for comparison of this figure. Sure, some STEM graduates work in fields outside their major, but is this more or less than graduates in general? In fact, STEM gradates are significantly more likely than the average graduate to work in the field of their major: 81.2 percent of employed STEM graduates consider their job related to their major, compared to just 72.5 percent of employed graduates with any major. Moreover, some people get STEM degrees and realize that a career in STEM is not for them, not because of money or job prospects, but because they prefer to be doing other things.

In addition, Charette argues that “even in the computer and IT industry, … not everyone who wants a job can find one. A recent study by EPI … found that more than a third of recent computer science graduates aren’t working in their chosen major; of that group, almost a third say the reason is that there are no jobs available.”

What Charette ignores is that, almost unequivocally, computer science graduates have superior labor market outcomes compared to the average graduate. Looking at both employed and unemployed graduates, 73 percent of computer science graduates are employed in a job related to their major; just 61 percent of all graduates are. Likewise 5.4 percent of computer science graduates reported that a computer science job was unavailable; but over 8 percent of graduates of any major reported that they were unable to find jobs in their field of study.

Oddly, Charette also makes the contradictory argument that STEM jobs are being filled by non-STEM graduates, and thus no need for STEM graduates:

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?

The reason is simple: there are too few STEM graduates to fill STEM positions,  and thus employers are forced to draw from the pool of non-STEM graduates. This is a symptom of the crisis, not a solution.

Charette also criticizes a 2011 study that projected growth in science and engineering occupations:

The Georgetown study did not fully account for the Great Recession. It projected a downturn in 2009 but then a steady increase in jobs beginning in 2010 and a return to normal by the year 2018. In fact, though, more than 370 000 science and engineering jobs in the United States were lost in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We were unable to find numbers in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) database to support this claim. Take a look yourself. These kinds of jobs were not lower in 2011 than in 2010.  In fact, comparing these two more detailed tables, we find that the United States added somewhere between 60,000 and 256,000 science and engineering jobs in 2011, depending on what is counted as science and engineering.

Finally, Charette argues, like the EPI report, that slow wage growth in IT indicates there is a surplus of computer graduates (he extrapolates IT to STEM as a whole):

The price of labor has not risen, as you would expect it to do if STEM workers were scarce. In computing and IT, wages have generally been stagnant for the past decade.

Is IT wage growth flat? The reality is significantly more nuanced than Charette makes it seem. High-skill IT occupations, such as software development, saw wage growth, while lower-skill occupations, such as software programming have seen wage declines.

But even if wage growth has not been as high as one might expect in an industry with shortages, what Charette overlooks is the global nature of this labor market and the tech industry generally.  STEM occupations face global competition, which puts some limits on wage growth. If enterprises in the United States increase wages too much, then they lose competitive advantage to enterprises in other economies. For example, computer programming (and occupations like it) can be more easily outsourced to lower-cost foreign nations such as India, and this depresses the rate at which programmer wages can rise. Meanwhile, American workers maintain an advantage in relatively high skilled and high paying occupations such as software development, which is why these sorts of occupations have seen salary increases. This “globalization” effect is not true with occupations like truck driving or nursing, where labor cost increases are more easily absorbed.

This post by Robert Atkinson was featured on IEEE Spectrum’s homepage debate on STEM education.

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.
  • Just an engineer

    First, calling Mr. Charette’s article in IEEE Spectrum “a blog post” is a flat-out distortion. What’s written above is a blog post.

    “Yes, it’s true: some STEM graduates don’t obtain STEM jobs. But…”

    Stop! It is *most* STEM grads who don’t obtain STEM jobs. The first graphic in Charette’s article makes this abundantly clear.

    Furthermore, Atkinson’s comparison of STEM grads to other degree-holders is nonsense. A ChemE degree-holder should have a reasonable expectation of working as a chemical engineer. An 8-out-of-10 chance at that is frankly terrible, and it’s doubtful many would suffer through the curriculum if they knew they faced these statistics. Engish majors, in contrast, do not expect that their degrees qualify them for careers as novelists, poets, or literary critics. Imagining an 8-out-of-10 chance at that is laughable.

    Atkinson also misses the point that *careers* in STEM are quite different from entry-level jobs. There is plenty of evidence that STEM careers hit a brick wall after about 15-20 years. Surveys of recent grads reveal nothing about the health of these professions. The wage data presented by Charette and others is a far better indicator.

    And yet, even if we accept all of Atkinson’s criticism, he has no proof for the shortage. If there is a general shortage, it should be as obvious as it is with the specific example of petroleum engineering. There is none, and there never has been.

  • Another Engineer

    Not working in your field of study does not mean you have a bad job. This is especially true when your skills are valuable across disciplines. Look at wages to see the demand for these skills, there’s a good premium on your engineering degree, especially compared to other degrees.

    Would you want to go into a degree knowing it only had one field of application? I can see you’re a betting man.

  • Just an engineer

    I agree: Engineering and science careers have become a bad bet. In fact, America’s top students agree with me and are gravitating to easier, more lucrative options.

    Again, why study chemical engineering when you’re not even going to be a chemical engineer? To impress employers? Our disciplines are not just mental exercises designed to demonstrate our mettle. Engineering is something much more…much greater than that!

    Having said that, STEM-degree holders continue to be some of the smartest people with grit that you’re going to meet. This self-selected bunch is likely going to succeed in whatever profession the invisible hand nudges them toward, so the argument about a “premium” on engineering degrees is specious. Brains and tenacity are generally rewarded no matter what you studied in college. So why study engineering while you’re there?

  • MTasdf

    So where are the entry level STEM jobs? Surely if there were a shortage companies would be trying to fill these positions. The only entry level jobs I’ve found in my field are in China or eastern Russia.