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The U.S. isn’t producing enough highly skilled graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to meet the country’s workforce needs. To remain competitive in an increasingly globalized world the U.S. needs to step up its own production of STEM graduates and amend its immigration policies to better recruit the best and the brightest from abroad.

Such is the conventional wisdom in the halls of Congress and many corners of higher education. But what if it’s wrong?

Michael S. Teitelbaum’s recent book Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent (Princeton University Press) calls into question the conventional notion that the U.S. is falling behind in the production of talented STEM graduates. Teitelbaum argues that the recurrent calls of a generalized shortage of STEM workers are 1) “inconsistent with nearly all available evidence” and 2) self-serving, promoted as they are by technology industry employers and their lobbyists invested in expanding the H1-B guest worker visa program and their access to larger and therefore cheaper pools of labor.

“Over the past two decades, lobbying and public relations efforts to convince U.S. political elites that the country faces damaging and widespread shortages in its critical science and engineering workforce can only be described as stunning successes,” writes Teitelbaum, a demographer and senior research associate at the Labor and Work Life program at Harvard Law School.

“It is conventional now to hear seemingly sincere pronouncements about the dangers of such shortages from politicians of all ideological persuasions and from much of the mass media. This apparently broad consensus prevails notwithstanding almost universal inability by objective labor market analysts to find any convincing empirical evidence to confirm the existence of such generalized shortages.”

Teitelbaum is far from alone in making this counter-conventional argument. In his book he cites a wide array of scholars who make arguments about stagnating wages for science and engineering Ph.D.s compared to professionals with similarly advanced levels of education – J.D.s, M.D.s, and M.B.A.s – and who find no evidence of generalized workforce shortages. (Teitelbaum is careful to note that there may well be shortages at any given time in particular subfields or in particular geographic regions, but that those aren’t the same as generalized, nationwide shortages in the science and engineering fields.)

An article in Issues in Science and Technology from last summer by Hal Salzman, a professor at Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, summarizes some of the main points of evidence for the anti-shortage argument, including data showing that the nation produces more than twice the number of STEM graduates each year than the number who find STEM jobs, and that wages for jobs in information technology and other STEM fields haven’t increased as one might expect if there were indeed ongoing talent shortages. In an interview, Salzman noted a contrast, the subfield of petroleum engineering, in which there does indeed seem to be a shortage – and wages went up, as did the number of graduates with degrees in the field. “When we can see a documented shortage, and salaries respond, so do students,” he said.  "We’ve never seen any evidence that the labor market is not responsive to labor market signals of wages."

On the other hand, those who argue that there is evidence of inadequate supply of STEM workers point to data showing that holders of STEM degrees earn a wage premium compared to college graduates who majored in other fields. “The relative advantage of STEM over other majors in the labor market remains strong,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, a professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.  Carnevale’s analysis of online job postings also shows that while STEM jobs make up 11 percent of jobs for bachelor’s degree-holders they make up 28 percent of ads, and those ads are posted for longer durations, suggesting they take a long time to fill (though Salzman noted an alternative explanation -- that it could also suggest that companies aren’t under a crunch to fill jobs and can afford to be picky and wait for an exceptional candidate to come along). Overall Carnevale has found that people with STEM degrees are highly in demand in the economy, so much so that they can take their STEM degrees and “divert” to even higher-paying fields. 

Robert D. Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank that receives much of its funding from the IT industry, said the nation needs more STEM graduates, not fewer. “Our logic is the U.S. is in intense, serious global competition for innovation-based industries and jobs, we’re not doing anywhere near as well as we should and high-skilled STEM workers are one of the components we need to be successful and why not do everything that we can to make sure that we have them?"

Atkinson argued that one reason why wages don’t necessarily go up in response to domestic shortages is that the STEM job market is global and companies can hire talent in, say Estonia, at a lower cost. "The reason the shortage is not as bad as it could have been or is – I admit that the shortage is not catastrophic right now -- but the reason the shortage is not worse is largely because of immigration, both H-1B and regular," he said.

Yet in Falling Behind, Teitelbaum argues that there’s been “no shortage of shortages” over the past 60 years, writing that the U.S. scientific establishment has gone through cycles of alarm, boom and bust, each characterized by “the sounding of alarms about the insufficiency of the current or future science and engineering workforce, followed by governmental responses leading to booming growth in the number of scientists and engineers entering the workforce, followed by changes in circumstances that produce a bust in demand and chilly labor markets for new entrants.” Specifically Teitelbaum identifies five such “alarm, boom, and bust” cycles after World War II, each 10-20 years in length, the first three of which were spurred by Cold War anxieties – the second began after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite – followed by the booms and busts in high-tech (1995-2005) and biomedical sciences after the doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget from 1998 to 2003.

Teitelbaum argues that a conflation of educational and employment challenges is one area of confusion. Policymakers regularly bemoan American students’ mediocre performance on international standardized tests of math and science, but Teitelbaum argues that the mediocre overall scores mask the large disparities and extremes in student performance that characterize the American educational system. And he says that more than enough students are performing well on the top end to eventually fulfill the needs for the science and technology workforce (numbers for this vary depending on what you count, but Teitelbaum estimates that jobs that require high levels of science and math make up about 5-10 percent of the country’s overall jobs).

“The poor performance of the bottom quartile is a very legitimate cause for real concern in terms of equality of opportunity and the overall education of the future citizenry and workforce, but it has rather less to say than might be supposed about the implications for the future U.S. science and engineering workforce," he writes.

While Teitelbaum writes that it is true that the American advantage in research and development and higher education in science and engineering has eroded somewhat as countries in Europe and Asia have begun to catch up, he emphasizes that declines in U.S. dominance should be seen in relative terms.

He describes, however, good reasons to be concerned about “symptoms of malaise” in the U.S. science and engineering infrastructure, among them an unsustainable appetite for expansion (as he writes “the system appears to have a tendency to expand beyond whatever funds are available – no matter how large"), the instabilities of research funding and careers, and the lengthening of advanced training and unattractive career paths for Ph.D.s in science and engineering.

He makes a series of recommendations, several of which are aimed at better linking the academic production system and labor market needs. He recommends improving career information available to prospective Ph.D. students and incentivizing universities to reduce their reliance on the labor provided by Ph.D. students and postdoctoral research assistants in favor of hiring more staff scientists. He also describes a need to “clarify the goals of using federal research funds to finance unlimited and increasing numbers of international Ph.D. students and postdocs.”

“Is the main goal … to increase the size of the U.S. science and engineering workforce?” he asked “[T]o lower research costs by staffing federally supported research labs with poorly paid research assistants?” Or “to create international research connections, or to enhance the research capacity of their countries, if and when they return home?”

Asked in an interview about whether students should be encouraged to study STEM fields, Teitelbaum said yes, that the skills they learn will serve them well in any field they pursue (a point driven home by Carnevale’s research). “I think it is a good idea to encourage more people to go into majors in science and engineering but I don’t think I would base that urging on claims that there are shortages of scientists and engineers,” Teitelbaum said. “You’re promising something that you probably can’t deliver on, which is attractive and stable careers in science and engineering occupations.”

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