The Truth Hurts: The STEM Crisis Is Not a Myth

The fact that STEM jobs have fared so well even through the recession is telling. If anything, demand will only intensify as the economy picks up.
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Here we go again. Social media sites are buzzing with claims that there is no shortage of U.S. workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Last time this happened, they were responding to a report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which has since been soundly refuted. This time, it's an article in IEEE's Spectrum Magazine by Robert Charette, who proclaims that "the STEM crisis is a myth." Like EPI, Charette is simply wrong.

Charette suggests that people who have a STEM background are down on their luck -- unable to find stable jobs, making do with flat wages, or bailing out of STEM entirely. The STEM shortage "myth," he writes, was manufactured by a cabal of special interests who "cherry pick" data to keep themselves in business and depress STEM wages.

Yet Charette does a fair bit of cherry picking himself while missing the big picture. He argues from anecdotes and a handful of studies that support his point but leaves aside the mountain of data that demonstrate a shortage. More important, he unwittingly points to one of the biggest causes of this shortage: Demand for STEM skills has intensified across the entire economy.

Not just crying wolf
Charette limits his attention to the demand for people to fill jobs in traditional STEM fields like technology or healthcare. But even in those fields, demand is strong and growing.

Rising demand for STEM workers is in fact nothing new. A sidebar to Charette's article quotes 80 years' worth of warnings that a looming STEM crisis will hobble U.S. economic growth. The clear implication of the sidebar is that the education and business leaders who have been making these warnings have been crying wolf since before the Second World War. But were their fears of a STEM shortage really much ado about nothing?

Hardly. The National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that S&E workforce grew from some 182,000 to about 5.4 million people between 1950 and 2009, almost 15 times faster than the U.S. population and nearly four times faster than the total U.S. workforce. Surely all those worried education and business leaders were on to something. They foresaw a steep rise in demand for STEM talent as the U.S. economy made the transition from an industrial economy to an economy focused more squarely on technological innovation.

We can count ourselves lucky that the GI Bill, the national response to Sputnik, the race to put someone on the moon, and a host of other seminal events helped fuel the growth of the STEM workforce to meet this demand. Economists have argued that the technology those STEM workers helped create has accounted for nearly half of the nation's economic growth in the second half of the twentieth century.

Now is no time to rest on our laurels. While the rate of growth in STEM jobs may have slowed through our two 21st-century recessions, it remains robust. NSF puts it at 20 percent between 2000 and 2010, a period during which the overall workforce experienced little growth.

And that robust growth will probably continue. Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that the total number of STEM jobs will grow 26 percent between 2010 and 2020. The Georgetown Center also projects that professional and technical jobs in healthcare, which it doesn't include in its STEM numbers, will grow by 31 percent, far faster than the workforce as a whole. (Charette criticizes a previous projection Georgetown released in 2011 for not foreseeing the depth and duration of the recession, but he neglects to mention this more recent projection, which appeared in June of this year.)

It's nice to be in demand
Even in recent years of slower growth, it has been good to be a STEM worker. Yes, as Charette notes, some STEM employees have been laid off or unable to find jobs, which is an important reminder that nothing in life is a sure bet. But such anecdotes don't stack up against the bulk of the data, which tell a dramatically different story:

•A Change the Equation study found that, even in the sluggish years between 2009 and 2012, there were nearly two STEM-focused job postings for every unemployed STEM professional.
•During those same years, unemployment in STEM stood at just over 4 percent, well less than the 9.3 percent unemployment rates for non-STEM workers.

People in STEM jobs benefit from being in such high demand. Study after study confirms that STEM professionals get paid more than non-STEM professionals -- often much more -- even when you control for their education and other factors. Contrary to Charette's claim that STEM wages have stagnated, reports from Georgetown, the Commerce Department, and the Information Technology Innovation Foundation show that they have risen faster than non-STEM wages, even in recent years. That is a sign that employers are feeling the pinch.

Of course, not every STEM degree is a ticket to success. Charette is right to point out that people with PhDs in some sciences can have a tough time finding a job that matches their degrees. But such jobs represent only a very small sliver of the STEM job market.

The fact that STEM jobs have fared so well even through the recession is telling. If anything, demand will only intensify as the economy picks up.

Don't forget the STEM technicians!
Charette does not address the high demand for a large category of STEM workers: those who have two-year degrees or certificates rather than bachelor's degrees or higher. In fact, he barely acknowledges that such workers exist.

"Of the 7.6 million STEM workers counted by the Commerce Department, only 3.3 million possess STEM degrees," he writes. "If many STEM jobs can be filled by people who don't have a STEM degree, then why the big push to get more students to pursue STEM?" Charette does not mention that, by "STEM degrees," he means bachelor's or advanced degrees in STEM. Yet the Commerce Department report clearly indicates that the large majority of STEM workers who lack a bachelor's degree in STEM actually lack a bachelor's degree in any subject. Instead, most have 2-year degrees or certificates and do jobs that require nothing higher than that.

In fact, Jonathan Roswell of the Brookings Institution feels that studies like Commerce Department report dramatically undercount such STEM jobs. By his reckoning, STEM workers with an associate's degree or less account for 10 percent of the entire U.S. workforce. And don't imagine for a moment that the jobs they do require only low skills. Roswell finds that those jobs demand a "high level of knowledge" in STEM, and employers are quick to pay a premium for that knowledge. He estimates that, on average, STEM jobs that don't require a four-year degree pay 10 percent more than non-STEM jobs with similar education requirements.

Indeed, when business leaders in Change the Equation's coalition talk about the STEM worker shortage, they are often referring to the trouble they have finding qualified STEM workers below the bachelor's level. The evidence is on their side.

It's not just about "STEM Jobs" Anymore
One major flaw in Charette's argument is that he overlooks the growing demand for STEM skills beyond traditional STEM jobs.

In fact, what Charette sees as a sign of anemic demand for STEM professionals is quite the opposite. He observes that people with STEM credentials are not staying in STEM jobs, but that is only because they have strong job prospects well beyond the traditional STEM fields.

That does not mean that their STEM skills are going to waste. According to NSF, two thirds of people with degrees in Science and Engineering who end up in jobs outside of those fields report that their jobs are "closely or somewhat related" to their degrees. Georgetown's 2011 report on STEM found that STEM professionals are hot commodities in high-paying fields like finance and management, leaving many more employers to compete for people in a limited pool of STEM talent.

Again, employers are willing to pay for that talent. People with STEM degrees who go into non-STEM jobs earn 12 percent more than those don't hold degrees in STEM. That wage premium drives home the point that even non-STEM employers value STEM skills.

STEM for all
After making such a spirited attack on claims of a STEM shortage, Charette devotes a scant concluding paragraph to what he calls another "STEM crisis": "the fact that today's students are not receiving a solid grounding in science, math and engineering." On that point, at least, we agree. We need to make all young people STEM literate to help them cope with the broader challenges of life and citizenship in the twenty-first century.

Yet that crisis is at the heart of the STEM worker shortage. Employers of all stripes are looking for people with strong STEM knowledge and skills, but the U.S. talent pool is currently too shallow to meet their needs.

The consequences of this shortage are not merely economically devastating. They are devastating to the prospects of millions of low-income and minority youth who have not received a solid grounding in STEM and therefore have almost no chance to enjoy the benefits of a STEM career.

For those youth in particular, the STEM crisis is unfortunately all too real.


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