It was confusing when, several years ago, Bill Gates blasted American education for failing to produce enough graduates in science, technology and engineering. Really? Not enough workers in those fields? At the same time that he was making these statements, I knew computer programmers and biologists who couldn't find jobs and others who were facing stagnating and falling wages.
Yet, as with many positions Gates takes on education — often backed by sizable contributions to bolster his vision — this one took off and clung. Conferences are held on opening more high schools that specialize in STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. There have been suggestions that the nation should cut those pesky humanities departments and liberal arts degrees in colleges and universities. The Obama administration, which has bought into numerous educational shibboleths, has made it a goal to push for a million new STEM graduates in coming years.
Over the weekend, a Harvard researcher finally cast a more critical eye on all the hoopla. The conclusion: While the great STEM shortage isn't wholly myth, it certainly has been mightily overhyped.
Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, laid out the evidence for journalists Saturday at the USC-hosted conference of the Education Writers Assn:
If there were a big, general shortage of these workers, you would expect to see their wages rising. That hasn't happened.
There would be relatively low and declining unemployment rates compared with people of similar educational levels. Hasn't happened.
There should be faster-than-average employment growth, which is occurring in some occupations but not others.
In fact, Teitelbum portrayed the life of a biomedical researcher as practically grim. It takes an especially long time to obtain a doctoral degree in the field, and graduates are not being snapped up for jobs. The wages are lower than average for someone with that level of education, and the jobs tend to be unstable. Engineers start with higher wages, but those quickly flatten, and their jobs are notoriously insecure. Computer and information technology jobs are given to boom-and-bust cycles, but at least during the booms, the salaries are high.
The chatter about STEM is based on some realities, Teitelbaum said. Engineers might not, as a group, be terribly sought-after, but some specialized kinds of engineers are in hot demand — at least right now. There are regional shortages as well, and people have been less willing to move to another part of the country where the demand might be higher. That might in part be explained by cost-of-living differences — a computer job in the Bay Area's Silicon Valley, even if it pays 50% more than elsewhere, isn't seen as a good deal when housing there costs four times as much as in many other places.
But there's more to that unwillingness to move, according to the conference speakers. Partly that's an attachment to roots and families in young professionals that was less present in the baby boomer generation. But a big factor is that they don't trust that the move will result in a long-term job. And who can blame them? Jobs don't tend to be jobs anymore; they're contracts, often without benefits, for limited periods of time. Even when they are regular staff positions, people have little confidence that the job will continue. Employers show less loyalty to the people who work for them, and the workforce is responding in kind.
So from where does the STEM hype stem? According to Teitelbaum — who has written a book on the subject, due out in March, titled "Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent" — some of it comes from the country's longtime cycle of waxing and waning interest in science; attention seems to focus on science every 10 to 15 years before slacking off.
The only forces pushing the idea of STEM doom, he said, are those that have something to gain from it. Mostly those are STEM employers — the tech industry, for example — that want to pack the labor force with people to suppress wages, he said, as well as lobby for looser immigration laws so that they can bring in less expensive overseas workers. Joining the chorus are universities that want more funding for science programs, as well as immigration lawyers who see the potential for handling large numbers of work visas.
The Chronicle of Higher Education did an excellent job of reporting on this in November 2013; unfortunately, the publication isn't read much by the general public.
A lot also depends on what you call a STEM job. Regardless of what the Obama administration says, some of the real need is for technically-oriented jobs that don't require any sort of college degree. Want to be in demand these days? According to the speakers, the workers everyone wants are trained welders and glaziers.