Reframing the 'STEM Shortage' Debate

Is the U.S. producing too few workers in science and other technical fields? A new study says that argument misses the point: The country needs more graduates with STEM competencies.

October 20, 2011

WASHINGTON -- For several years now, science advocates and economists have been locked in a debate over whether the United States is producing too few scientists and engineers to sustain the country's historical technological edge and satisfy the demands of employers. With a new report today, Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce hopes to bridge the divide -- by arguing, essentially, that the country needs more people with scientific competencies than it does actual scientists per se.

The debate over the viability of the scientific work force has broken down into two camps.

In one corner have been the authors of a series of highly publicized studies (most notably 2005's "Rising Above the Gathering Storm") argued (often in dramatic terms) that the country needed to significantly expand the number of native-born students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, arguing that American businesses and universities lacked sufficiently qualified workers to meet their needs. Those reports were at least partially responsible for federal legislation that has sought to double federal spending on the physical sciences and significantly improve science education.

On the other side are economists and demographers who, citing job market data and flat wages for scientists and other technologists, have challenged the notion of an undersupply.

Neither side is wrong, exactly, but the real problem lies elsewhere, Anthony P. Carnevale and his colleagues at the Georgetown center argue in their new report.

The country is still producing lots of workers with what the report calls "STEM competencies," including investigative and problem solving tendencies, the authors state. But those skills are increasingly in demand in other non-STEM fields such as health care management and professional and business services, and because those fields typically pay more and often offer some rewards that core science and engineering jobs may not -- such as social or entrepreneurial interests, or a chance to manage other people -- workers with STEM skills are increasingly being "diverted" to non-STEM jobs.

"If you look at a point in time, we are producing enough [STEM graduates] for STEM occupations," Carnevale says. "But a more dynamic analysis shows ... a
deeper problem. The rest of the economy is now demanding and paying for and diverting these kinds of skills. If you're an American kid and you're good at math, and money's what you're about, you may not want a STEM job."

It's not a bad thing that "STEM competencies are gaining more and more currency in the labor market," Carnevale notes. It becomes a problem only if colleges and other would-be producers aren't developing enough to meet the demand of the growing number of employers seeking those "foundational" skills and traits that "allow you lots of choices" in the job market. The greatest need is not at the highest educational levels, as there may well be an oversupply of scientists with master's and Ph.D.s seeking academic jobs or corporate R&D positions.

The real gap is at the sub-baccalaureate level, the report notes, where American higher education tends not to focus its attention.

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Doug Lederman

Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. He helps lead the news organization's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003. Before that, Doug had worked at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles, first as an athletics reporter and editor. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one in 2009 for a series of Inside Higher Ed articles he co-wrote on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug lives with his wife, Kate Scharff, in Bethesda, Md.

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