Is there really a shortage of STEM workers?


Every so often, this question pops up and the debate begins again – do we have too many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers, or not enough?  Some people say that scientists are having difficulty finding jobs, so we must be creating too many scientists.  But there are still lots of places where technical expertise is needed, so obviously we’re not creating enough scientists.  Which is true?  A couple of recent reports have looked into the issue, and added more fuel to the discussion.

The first one, the STEM Report, was released by Georgetown University in October 2011, and argues that there really is a shortage of STEM workers in the United States, but not for the reasons traditionally cited.   These authors concluded that “innovation and technology change have led to the demand for STEM competencies beyond traditional STEM occupations”, and the deeper problem is a broad scarcity of workers with basic STEM competencies across the entire economy.  They postulate that domestic STEM talent is moving into non-STEM occupations because the core cognitive STEM competencies are becoming increasingly valued in non-STEM occupations that are highly-paid, prestigious, and more in line with worker’s interests and values.  Workers leak out of the STEM pipeline at all stages, after they have acquired varying levels of proficiency in STEM competencies.  For example, only 19% of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree do so in a STEM field, and only about half of those actually work in a STEM field after college.  After 10 years post-graduation, only 8% are still working in a STEM field.  The authors of this report argue that the vacated positions have in recent years been filled by foreign-born STEM students, who are more likely than non-STEM students to remain in this country and become STEM workers.

The second report recent report is entitled “Jobs Americans Can’t Do:  The Myth of a Skilled Worker Shortage”, and was published in November 2011 by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).  This is a group that advocates for immigration policy reform, and not surprisingly their report concludes that “U.S. tech companies are cutting wages by discriminating against qualified American workers”, and that “there is no evidence that there is, or will exist in the foreseeable future, a shortage of qualified native-born scientists and engineers in the United States”.  In fact, they find that the “glut of science and engineering degree holders has caused many S&E graduates to seek work in other fields”, and foreign-born scientists who are willing to “work for smaller wages” are taking jobs away from native-born workers.

Even though the reports come to different overall conclusions, both agree that STEM-trained workers overall are leaving their field in large numbers, at all stages of their careers.  (They also agree that the academic market for PhDs in STEM areas is weak.)

However, the first report believes that the competencies of STEM workers are highly valued in non-STEM occupations, so workers are being pulled into lucrative careers elsewhere, and we should train more workers to fill both the STEM and non-STEM markets with technically trained professionals.  The FAIR report believes that the influx of foreign-born students and scientists has flooded the market, depressing wages and forcing STEM workers out and into other fields.  Specifically, what is it that makes STEM-trained workers so valuable?  The core competencies specifically identified in the Georgetown University report include critical thinking, complex problem solving, deductive and inductive reasoning, problem sensitivity (the ability to tell when something is wrong or likely to go wrong), systems analysis, and many others.  While we may learn these skills in a research lab, or hone them in a manufacturing plant, they are applicable to a wide variety of industries and job fields, both technical and non-technical.  I encourage you to check out the list, and think about which of these competencies particular strengths are for you, and which ones you might be able to add to your resume.

Regardless of which interpretation is you might agree with (and does it really matter?), the bottom line is that STEM-trained workers are valued in non-STEM fields, and that value is increasing over time.  It also means people trained with a STEM background have more options when looking for employment, which I think everyone will agree is a good thing.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

7 Responses to Is there really a shortage of STEM workers?

  1. Kevin says:

    I think both of these articles point towards the central problem: Business wants competent STEM workers, but does not want to pay them fair-market wages.

    Why would a STEM-trained worker stay in a STEM occupation when more fulfilling work lies elsewhere? It seems technical positions are increasingly filled by those who are unable to compete for positions in the broader market for various reasons (immigration status, language skills, etc.).

  2. Richard Earley says:

    what is the reference for the statement, “For example, only 19% of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree do so in a STEM field”. Anecdotal feedback suggests this figure is too high. How does this figure compare to other countries?

  3. schndr says:

    So it’s irrelevant that I can’t find a job that has anything to do with my major while industry is claiming there’s a worker shortage because I can still get a job at target with that chemistry degree I’m still in debt to Sallie Mae for? Good to hear.

  4. WOTAN says:

    In reply to Hewlett Packards announced lay-off of some 27,000 workers, A Professor iin California noted that many older (as in age 35) STEM workers may not find work because ther are perceived as too high cost, and younger immigrants will find employment instead. In 2001 I was making $40/hr as an independent contractor and that employer was hiring immigrants for $20/hr. $50/hr as an contractor is only middle-class in the Mid-West and $20/hr is lower class. Today, one major media is airing a report about the 1000s of STEM workers laid off by NASA who have not been able to find jobs for months. Capitalism has always used lower-cost labor to destroy stand-of-living and opportunities of higher-cost workers, so what’s new?

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