Policy & Politics

Shortage or Surplus?

Every few years the warnings appear: the United States will run out of scientists if nothing is done. Is there really a looming shortage of the science educated?

By Jennifer Weeks | January 2, 2015
For years politicians and pundits have forecast a deficit of American STEM workers and have poured money and resources into averting the shortage. But is there really a looming labor crisis?

For years politicians and pundits have forecast a deficit of American STEM workers and have poured money and resources into averting the shortage. But is there really a looming labor crisis?

For years politicians and pundits have forecast a deficit of American STEM workers and have poured money and resources into averting the shortage. But is there really a looming labor crisis?

On October 5, 1957, New York Times readers faced a stark headline over their morning coffee: “Soviet Fires Earth Satellite into Space; It Is Circling the Globe at 18,000 M.P.H.; Sphere Tracked in 4 Crossings over U.S.” Sputnik 1 was in orbit, and the Space Age had officially begun.

It was an important scientific milestone, even though the 184-pound satellite only carried a radio transmitter. Just as significant, the Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space. Since World War II prominent government officials and educators had warned that America’s economic status and national security could erode if the nation did not produce enough scientists and engineers. Now those predictions appeared to be coming true.

“According to my scientific friends, one of our greatest and most glaring deficiencies is the failure of us in this country to give high enough priority to scientific education and to the place of science in our national life,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in a national address on November 7. A week later Eisenhower asserted, “We need scientists in the 10 years ahead . . . thousands more than we are planning to have.” To produce them Eisenhower called for national testing in high schools, incentives to draw promising students into scientific and professional fields, and initiatives to improve math and science teaching.

Today experts are warning again of a looming shortage of workers with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees. According to a 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, every year the United States produces about 300,000 graduates with bachelor’s and associate’s degrees in STEM fields. To remain a world leader in science and technology, the report states, the country needs to boost that number by one third over the next decade—generating an additional 1 million STEM graduates. But is there really a shortage of science and technology graduates in the United States?

Current STEM discussions echo the 1950s, but there are important differences. Sputnik was widely viewed as a national-security alarm: if the Soviet Union could put a satellite in orbit, it could also build long-range missiles capable of striking U.S. territory. In response Eisenhower reorganized and strengthened federal space and defense programs. He also appointed Massachusetts Institute of Technology President James Killian as the nation’s first presidential science adviser; created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the U.S. Department of Defense to develop and execute cutting-edge technological research; and called on Congress to create a civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Both ARPA and NASA were up and running by fall 1958.

Today’s STEM debate is about maintaining economic dominance and ensuring that high-technology, high-value products are made in the United States. Unlike the reaction to Sputnik 1, this discussion is a response to economywide trends that stretch back for more than a decade: low job-creation rates, stagnating or declining income levels for American workers, loss of manufacturing jobs, and subpar scores by U.S. students in math and science compared with those of peers in other industrialized countries. The enemy today is not a nation but a process: globalization.

“A substantial portion of our workforce finds itself in direct competition for jobs with lower-wage workers around the globe, and leading-edge scientific and engineering work is being accomplished in many parts of the world,” the National Academy of Sciences observed in a 2007 report, Rising above the Gathering Storm. The study recommended major investments to boost STEM education, including awarding four-year scholarships to 10,000 students yearly to earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields and concurrent certification as K–12 science and math teachers. But although Congress authorized more than $1 billion in grants and scholarships to improve K–12 STEM education in fiscal years 2008 through 2010, it ultimately provided less than $300 million to fund these programs. A follow-up report in 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences stated that these steps fell far short of what the Gathering Storm report had recommended and that the United States was still “tolerating a K–12 educational system that functions poorly in many areas.”

The enemy today is not a nation but a process: globalization.

The Obama administration supports the idea that better STEM education is key to economic growth and a competitive economy. “We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time,” President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Obama has proposed broad investments in STEM education and called for recruiting and retaining 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2020. During that time the U.S. Department of Education projects that jobs in STEM fields, such as computing and medical research, will increase significantly faster than jobs in other fields.

But there’s another sharp contrast with the 1950s: some analysts say today’s reported STEM crisis is a myth. In their view corporate leaders are drumming up worries about labor shortages for high-tech jobs because producing more STEM graduates will depress STEM wages. According to the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., the average hourly wage for college-educated U.S. workers in computer and math jobs rose from $37.27 in 2000 to $39.24 in 2011 (in 2012 dollars)—about 0.5% annually. (For comparison, U.S. inflation rates during the same period ranged between 1.6 and 3.8 percent annually, except for the recession year of 2009, when the rate fell to −0.4 percent.) “If a labor shortage existed in these occupations, one would expect wages to rise sharply as employers try to lure scarce workers to their firms,” the center observed.

Another study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that STEM workers overall were well paid, although there were significant differences among specialties. The report projected that the United States will create about 277,000 job openings in STEM fields annually from 2008 through 2018 at all education levels, including workers without college degrees; it also noted that about 271,000 new graduates currently earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields annually.

Why, then, can’t employers find enough skilled workers? The Georgetown study concluded that while much STEM knowledge is specialized, STEM careers also require broader abilities, such as mathematical thinking and deductive reasoning, which are relevant to many other fields. A large share of people with strong STEM abilities leave STEM occupations either during school or later in their careers to go into professional and managerial fields that pay even higher salaries than STEM jobs.

“People with strong STEM competencies are high-performing students and workers who have a broad range of educational and career choices,” the study observed. Put another way, STEM shortages may be as much about retention as they are about finding qualified workers in the first place.