Do We Really Have a Scientist Shortage?

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It’s a fundamental starting point for much of education reform. This country’s schools are bad, and education is in trouble, it part because they’re not producing enough students prepared for careers in sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

But America might very well have plenty of STEM specialists already. So many, in fact, that the job prospects for STEM graduates are actually pretty dismal. Perhaps that’s the point.

In 2007 Barack Obama said:

In this kind of economy, countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Already, China is graduating eight times as many engineers as we are. By twelfth grade, our children score lower on math and science tests than most other kids in the world.

There’s a crisis, right? We need colleges to produce “10,000 more engineers a year.” As Richard Stephens of Boeing said to the House Science and Technology Committee in February, 2010:

Our industry needs more innovative young scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians to replace our disproportionately large (compared to the total U.S. workforce) population of Baby Boomers as they retire. At the same time that retirements are increasing, the number of American workers with STEM degrees is declining, as the National Science Board pointed out in 2008. This skills shortage is a global concern across the board in all high-tech sectors—public as well as private.

Maybe not. According to a piece by Beryl Lieff Benderly in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, critics may have vastly overstated the real need for STEM experts. As Benderly writes:

Leading experts on the STEM workforce, have said for years that the US produces ample numbers of excellent science students. In fact, according to the National Science Board’s authoritative publication Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the country turns out three times as many STEM degrees as the economy can absorb into jobs related to their majors.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having too many scientists, right? Scientific minds can invent wonderful things and fuel economic progress. Why would some experts, like the gentleman from Boeing, overstate the need for scientists? Well the more STEM professionals are out there, the cheaper they get. More STEM people means companies don’t have to pay them much.

So what’s really going on here might not be that we have too few scientists and engineers but that we have too many. According to Benderly, however, this isn’t an accident; it’s policy.

Simply put, a desire for cheap, skilled labor, within the business world and academia, has fueled assertions—based on flimsy and distorted evidence—that American students lack the interest and ability to pursue careers in science and engineering, and has spurred policies that have flooded the market with foreign STEM workers. This has created a grim reality for the scientific and technical labor force: glutted job markets; few career jobs; low pay, long hours, and dismal job prospects for postdoctoral researchers in university labs; near indentured servitude for holders of temporary work visas.

It’s not that America’s science and engineering firms don’t have enough applicants. They have plenty. They just want to ensure a steady oversupply of trained STEM professionals so they can continue to employ them cheaply.

Of course that makes a lot of sense for such firms, but let’s be careful about using a few companies’ human resource desires to formulate national education policy. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer