Blog: The Educated Reporter

Is There Really a STEM Worker Shortage?

Linda Rosen speaks at EWA's seminar for reporters, "STEM and Beyond: Strengthening the Skills of Students and Journalists."

EWA recently held a seminar on STEM education and student skills at the University of Southern California. We asked some of the reporters who participated to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Maggie Severns of Politico. You can find out more about STEM education on EWA’s topic pages. 

America’s shortage of STEM workers surfaces in conversations about everything from science teacher training to H1B visas to the Common Core State Standards. And it has the eye of President Barack Obama, who last year launched an initiative to train 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade.

Yet in academic circles, there’s considerable debate about whether that STEM worker shortage actually exists.  Harvard Law School demographer Michael Teitelbaum and Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, broke down the STEM labor market statistics during a panel at EWA’s seminar.

The first question you have to answer, Rosen said, is: Who is a STEM worker?

“It’s harder to answer than one might think,” Rosen explained, because the answer in many ways hinges on which professions are considered genuine STEM jobs.

Different thought leaders use different definitions of what constitutes a STEM worker. When the Brookings Institute is analyzing the STEM worker shortage, for example, it counts people working in healthcare, construction and plumbing as STEM workers. Additionally, workers in other jobs that require science, technology, engineering or math training — but probably don’t require an advanced degree – are included in Brooking’s definition of a STEM job.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, another leading source of information on the STEM labor market, takes a much more narrow definition of STEM occupations that, crucially, does not include healthcare.

The result is that Brookings sees STEM workers making up a much larger chunk of the population than Georgetown. And Brookings’ STEM labor market will also see sizeable job growth in the future, with 50 percent of that job growth coming from an increasing number of pre-baccalaureate jobs.

“It’s apples and dump trucks: The two [definitions] are so wildly different,” Teitelbaum said. And if you focus on that narrow definition of STEM—mostly scientists and engineers—there’s “no credible evidence of general shortages in that part of the workforce,” according to Teitelbaum.

He then presented his evidence that argues there isn’t a STEM worker shortage. If there were system-wide shortages in the STEM labor market, Teitelbaum said, there would also be the typical markers of a job that’s in-demand: rising wages, fast employment growth and low employment.  STEM jobs are seeing some of that employment growth, but not the other indicators.

Much of the misinformation about the STEM worker shortage comes from groups with something to gain from the shortage myth, Teitelbaum said, such as IT employers who argue for increases to H1B visas so they have more options when hiring and so wages don’t increase too quickly.

But there are a lot of factors – often, complicated ones—at play that can make STEM jobs hard to fill, both panelists emphasized.

One of those factors is diversion: STEM majors graduating from college often get pulled into non-STEM career fields. Graduates with math degrees are desirable to both Wall Street and the NSA, for example.

Another factor —and a reason we face a STEM shortage in future years—is demographics. STEM occupations are currently dominated by white males, but future graduates will be less white and male. In 2012, only a third of STEM degrees went to women, Rosen said, and only 19 percent of computing certificates when to black and Hispanic men, despite the fact that they make up a third of the college population.

“Knowing that we will be majority-minority gives pause when you wonder whether we’ll have people going into these fields,” Rosen said. Unless more minority graduates enter STEM fields in the future, there could be a shortage.

Yet another issue is specialization. “When you talk to employers, what you’re hearing is a real difficulty in finding what are sometimes specialized kinds of jobs,” Rosen said. While there could be many electrical engineers, for example, it could be difficult to find an electrical engineer with a specific sub-specialty.

Geography is also a concern. Young people today are less likely to move than they were before the recession, so vacancies in some areas could be harder to fill.

Other industries have other requirements: The defense industry needs U.S. citizens to fill STEM positions as opposed to foreign workers, for example. “And they need U.S. citizens who haven’t written something really stupid on Facebook,” Rosen added.

The bottom line for journalists reporting on the STEM workforce, she added, is that it’s important to ask about the fine print: What definition of a STEM worker are sources using? Are they talking about jobs in an industry with extra hard-to-fill requirements, like the defense industry?

And just because the STEM worker shortage might not be as widespread as some claim, that doesn’t mean that America doesn’t need to improve when it comes to STEM education. The shortage of science education is “far more daunting news,” Rosen said.


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