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The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth?

By Michael Anft, The Chronicle of Higher Education

It's an acronym that has morphed into a meme.

For the United States to maintain its global supremacy in innovation, the commonplace goes, the nation must crank out more and more college graduates in STEM programs—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Otherwise a continuing shortage of workers in those fields will sink the nation and its economy beneath the surface of an ever-flatter world, overrun by lower-paid foreigners who have outpaced us in STEM education.

Behind the hand-wringing sits the very real question of where the next wave of American jobs will come from. After a long span of consistent job growth, from 1961 to 2001, the market in the United States for all workers has stalled for the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It now contains roughly the same number of jobs as it did a dozen years ago.

Despite STEM workers' making up less than 6 percent of the current American work force, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM education offers a route—perhaps the one true path—out of that unemployment swamp, and will make the nation more competitive to boot, or so say a flock of education experts, pundits, and policy makers—right up to the White House. A council set up by President Obama has called for one million new STEM graduates and 100,000 new teachers in those fields over the next decade.

But is the mantra true? Are there too few well-trained Americans for the high-skilled research and manufacturing jobs available stateside?

Most researchers who have looked into the issue—those who don't receive their money from technology companies or their private foundations, anyway—say no. They cite figures showing that the STEM-worker shortage is not only a meme but a myth.

Yes, some information-technology workers are enjoying raises, and petroleum engineers, in demand because of the boom in fracking, are seeing their salaries explode.

But if you're a biologist, chemist, electrical engineer, manufacturing worker, mechanical engineer, or physicist, you've most likely seen your paycheck remain flat at best. If you're a recent grad in those fields looking for a job, good luck. A National Academies report suggests a glut of life scientists, lab workers, and physical scientists, owing in part to over-­recruitment of science-Ph.D. candidates by universities. And postdocs, many of whom are waiting longer for academic spots, are opting out of science careers at higher rates, according to the National Science Foundation.

Unemployment rates within STEM fields generally, while lower than the overall unemployment rate of 7.2 percent, are often higher than they've been in years—a sign that there is a shortage of jobs, not workers.

"Most of the claims of such broad-based shortages in the U.S. STEM work force come from employers of STEM personnel and from their lobbyists and trade associations," says Michael Teitelbaum, a Wertheim Fellow in science policy at Harvard University and a senior adviser at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "Such claims have convinced some politicians and journalists, who echo them."

As do leaders of colleges and universities. Many of their institutions, of course, benefit from STEM-related partnerships with industries and federal STEM grants. Higher education receives about half of the total federal STEM education budget of $3.1-billion, according to the National Science and Technology Council. Colleges get grants from 14 agencies, including NASA and the National Science Foundation, to increase the number of STEM majors and grads, improve curricula, and bring more women and minority students into science and technology fields.

Master's-degree STEM slots also draw the international students whose tuition so many research universities rely on, and institutions hire postdoctoral workers to run labs. What's more, research universities look primarily to their hard-sciences and engineering departments to stoke their commercialization efforts and technology-transfer offices. Without strong STEM departments and a savvy research-and-innovation apparatus, such universities will see their status as economic engines diminished.

For all those reasons, the STEM-worker issue has been a hot topic on campuses lately. (As well as in Congress: The matter of opening up more visa slots for foreign tech workers was a much-debated skirmish during the battle over comprehensive immigration reform this past spring and summer.)

But if there truly were an across-the-STEM-spectrum labor shortage, Mr. Teitelbaum and others note, we'd be seeing an overall rise in wages in technology and science fields. And that isn't happening.

Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology who frequently testifies before Congress, has argued that companies, including Microsoft, have advocated for more federal money for STEM education and more visas for foreign IT workers—even as they lay off thousands of American employees with comparable skills. "The Washington consensus is that there is a broad-based shortage of STEM workers, and it's just not true," he says.

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