A Looming STEM Worker Shortage? Why You Should Be Skeptical of the Claims
It has long been the conventional wisdom that the United States has suffered from a shortage of personnel trained in “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), with a damaging effect on its competitiveness as a manufacturer — and indeed, concern with the issue has seen a recent uptick in this period of reviving mercantilism, pandemic and war-induced supply chain disruption, and national security-oriented reshoring.
Still, as is so often the case the conventional wisdom, while certainly living up to the expectation that it be “conventional,” is less persuasive as “wisdom” — the actual evidence for such shortage shaky for as long as such claims have been made, starting with the fact that for all its aura of tough-minded precision the term STEM so glibly tossed about may mean less than it appears to do. In actuality STEM is a very ill-defined category — with some seeming to have in mind a quite limited category of engineers, computer scientists and very closely associated occupations oriented to quantitative and/or physical science study, requiring at least a bachelor’s degree and devoted to the application of theoretical scientific knowledge to the production of high-technology manufactured goods, where others think in terms of a wider range of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math-utilizing activity. (For example, are medical professionals STEM workers? What about machinists who may have attended technical training institutes and done apprenticeships instead of going the college route? What about those teachers providing training in STEM subjects — with this category possibly including not just the university math professor but the elementary school teacher imparting the foundations to the very young? Etc., etc., etc. — all before getting into still more complex subjects as whether, as some seem to be demanding, economics ought to be reclassified as a STEM major.)
The result is that the proportion of workers considered to be STEM personnel ranges wildly depending on whom one asks. One analysis published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) remarked that the proportion varies from as little as 5 to as much as 20 percent depending on who does the defining, while I have seen still higher estimates. FTI Consulting, for instance, put the figure at one-third of U.S. workers.
That extreme range of ways of defining STEM by itself virtually guarantees that analysts will come up with wildly differing estimates, even when acting in perfectly good faith. However, making matters worse is the fact that the matter of a “STEM worker shortage” is also ill-defined. Do we mean STEM workers across the range of categories (whatever we may consider those categories to be), or just workers as a proportion of the total? (For instance, would we be justified in speaking of an overall “STEM shortage” in a situation where there were only really shortages in a few categories of workers, or even just one — for instance, a scarcity of petroleum engineers?) In any case, what proportion would that be? How many jobs would have to go unfilled for how long a time for this to be considered an issue — and would it matter if there were reasons other than a plain and simple shortage of workers for those positions being unfilled? (Even if it is obviously a “shortage” if a company or a sector does not have all the people it needs, at what point does an inconvenience as supply and demand shift turn into an emergency? And what about extenuating circumstances? Would it still be a real “shortage” of petroleum engineers if the number of jobs in that area suddenly exploded because of an oil boom after many years of low prices and low employment encouraging engineering students to concentrate on other fields, and laid-off petroleum engineers to pursue other careers — and likely not leave them afterward?)
Meanwhile, going by the existing studies, there is always plenty of evidence that STEM personnel are simply not in the kind of demand that the word “shortage” implies. We see very large numbers of people with STEM backgrounds in non-STEM occupations — and these not only veterans who used to work in STEM but moved on after some years (a common pattern due to rapid skills obsolescence and a quickly falling wage “premium” in areas like computer science), but of the freshly graduated who are more “in demand” also doing so, implying that employers in those very areas where they specialized offered no more than employers in those areas for which they did not have training. Indeed, a report from the Economic Policy Institute from some years ago noted that in those especially “hard” STEM fields of computer/information science and engineering “U.S. colleges graduate 50 percent more students than are hired into those fields each year,” with a majority of those who do not enter the “IT workforce” saying either that they had better opportunities outside that occupation, and one-third saying that IT jobs were simply not available. This is no evidence of some great unmet demand, but rather the opposite — the more in as this has generally been an era not of rising wages across the board but prolonged and deep stagnation in this area, and one could conceivably say the same of how companies have treated their workers these past many years. (If STEM workers were so scarce, would the workplace culture at companies like Netflix and the post-Musk Twitter be so brutal? Would companies be so high-handed, and workers so disadvantaged, in the argument over “remote work?” Would the news be so replete with reports of mass layoff of such workers from company after company, given what those layoffs will necessarily cost them in terms of longer-term, deeper, functionality?)
Of course, in considering all this there is the fact that those talking about shortages are often not talking about a shortage at the moment, but a projected one over some time frame — for instance, the next decade. However, the projections sometimes turning out to be quite far off the mark — with the deficit of STEM workers wildly exaggerated, and, again, the extreme opposite sometimes the case, Ron Hira pointing out that the BLS estimated that in 2000–2010 there would be 2 million new jobs for people in the “computer and mathematical occupations” category — four times as much as were actually to be seen in those years.
Of course, if the claims for a STEM shortage are so shaky it may seem odd that we hear the claim made so frequently.
One possible explanation for the pervasiveness and persistence of the idea of such a shortage is that it is a simple, easy-to-understand explanation for the problems of a country with a long-declining manufacturing base, and thus easily accepted and repeated over and over again. And there may well be some truth to this.
Yet it seems to me that we are on firmer ground when we consider the matter of hard interest. While employers may easily succumb to unrealistic expectations about how quickly the labor market will adapt to their ever-changing short-run demands (seemingly oblivious to what a long investment of time and money a degree in anything is for the student), the reality remains that for them labor, highly skilled labor included, can never be too cheap, abundant, disposable and deferential — one element in which is that, as many an engineer (who naturally has a different idea about engineers being cheap and disposable) remarks whenever the subject comes up, the idea of a STEM shortage in America is an excellent excuse to import workers on H-1B visas, or simply offshore or outsource the work. More broadly, the idea that not enough students are studying STEM is, politically, a far safer answer that policies of free trade, financial deregulation, passivity in the face of industrial decline, and much else, have encouraged investors to put their money elsewhere — to not only offshore production but to avoid production altogether, eschewing “real economy” investments in things like factories to instead buy up other companies, or pump-and-dump their own stock, or speculate in insecure securities, or do any of the other things that have gone with an age of “financialization” — and that they have acted on that incentive. (Indeed, this makes it doubly sanctimonious when commentators on the subject malign STEM majors for going into finance rather than, for example, engineering. Those policies created the context — and the situation where Wall Street offered more — but they blame the young person looking for their first job rather than the businesses and officials that actually hold the power in the situation.)
Meanwhile, claims about STEM shortages raise the question of why there are not more STEM graduates — with the list of the usual suspects likewise conveniently fitting many an agenda. The idea that it is a matter of the faults of K-12 education is grist to the mill of the crush-the-teacher’s-unions-and-privatize-everything crowd. The idea that it is a matter of able students being lured away from practical and useful majors toward “useless” studies in the humanities is likewise grist to the mills of the chronic humanities-bashers, from college and government budget-cutters, to culture warriors contemptuous of what they imagine (falsely) to be radical left dominance of such programs, to, for that matter, administrators of STEM-relevant programs angling to increase their budgets and staff (or simply ward off reductions in them) within a context of unending austerity — while it all plays very well with the Know-Nothing anti-intellectuals who are never few in any walk of life. One may add that this is also a convenient excuse for those who want to explain why college graduates may be getting less return on their “investment” than promised — and rebuff their requests for help with their crushing student loan debt, while practitioners of intergenerational warfare generally derive satisfaction from the thought of young people being lazy and fuzzy-minded implied in their eschewing STEM in favor of “pointless” soft subjects.
Indeed, all of this has me thinking back to the reports we heard last year of a possible shortage of teaching faculty in the United States. Certainly those claims also got widespread coverage in the U.S. — but the mainstream press afforded plenty of space to the skeptics at the time (as the right-wing press provided still more space), while I at least have the impression that the concern proved short-lived. But the expectation of the STEM shortage has had the status of “ conventional wisdom,” and to such a degree that one has to go much more out of their way to find a critical view as we hear about it again and again and again, week in, week out, year in, year out.
Considering this one should note that by and large those who wanted the public to take the idea of a teacher shortage seriously have been pretty much on the opposite side of the political line from those who wanted the public to take the idea of a STEM worker shortage seriously. By and large the people who sell the idea of a STEM shortage are also those that the news media, which gushes that anyone who allegedly has a billion dollars is a “ genius,” is predisposed to treat with far, far, far more respect than anyone else. And that this has made all the difference.
Originally published at https://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.