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Another Whack at the Stem Shortage Myth

Over at The Atlantic, Michael Teitelbaum has another crack at demolishing the “STEM shortage” myth. Looking over actual employment data, he finds:

All have concluded that U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more. Were there to be a genuine shortage at present, there would be evidence of employers raising wage offers to attract the scientists and engineers they want. But the evidence points in the other direction: Most studies report that real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations.

Right on all counts. I have taken many, many cracks at this subject myself. Heck, I’ve even said so in pieces at The Atlantic’s own web site. But the “critical shortage of scientists and engineers” idea just refuses to go back into its hole, no matter how many times it’s hit on the head. In this article, Teitelbaum doesn’t go into the reasons for this, but he’s been clear about it in recent appearances:

So from where does the STEM hype stem? According to Teitelbaum — who has written a book on the subject, due out in March, titled “Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent” — some of it comes from the country’s longtime cycle of waxing and waning interest in science; attention seems to focus on science every 10 to 15 years before slacking off.
The only forces pushing the idea of STEM doom, he said, are those that have something to gain from it. Mostly those are STEM employers — the tech industry, for example — that want to pack the labor force with people to suppress wages, he said, as well as lobby for looser immigration laws so that they can bring in less expensive overseas workers. Joining the chorus are universities that want more funding for science programs, as well as immigration lawyers who see the potential for handling large numbers of work visas.

Those are, I’m sad to say, pretty much the same conclusions I’ve come to. I don’t like sounding like a 1920s IWW organizer or something – it goes very much against my usual tendencies. And I continue to think that unionism in the sciences would be a bad idea. But drumming up cheap labor by pretending that there’s a shortage of it is a bad idea, too.
As mentioned above, Teitelbaum has a book out on this subject – here it is. Next time you run across someone going on about scientist shortages, hit them over the head with it.

42 comments on “Another Whack at the Stem Shortage Myth”

  1. Son O' Gashira says:

    It’s not a myth- it’s a lie.

  2. watcher says:


  3. MIMD says:

    Derek wrote: I continue to think that unionism in the sciences would be a bad idea
    Worse than what we have now?

  4. Tomas says:

    “How can the conventional wisdom be so different from the empirical evidence?”
    Marketing. See alse: homeopathy, Amway, quackery.

  5. but, but .... says:

    part of why the STEM shortage “story” is so appealing is the low test scores in America. That is hard to argue with and fits perfectly with the “shortage” story. How do you reconcile these two narratives?

  6. p says:

    The other thing that makes the lie believable is that there is so much scientists and engineers could be doing. Lots of diseases need to be cured, big need for new energy and modes of transportation, etc.
    It’s easy to tell people who know they want more engineering and science that if only we had more engineers and scientists, they’d get it. Of course, if STEM students were being hired and paid to do STEM, we’d also be getting it.

  7. paperclip says:

    I think the STEM myth/lie also serves politicians very well. “Relax, populace, there are enough jobs in America. If you can’t find a job, it’s YOUR fault, because you should have chosen STEM!”

  8. The comment about a shortage leading to rising wages is a good point. I started my R&D career in the early 2000s and heard stories where new synthetic chemists (straight out of school) were being paid more than experienced chemists as wages were rising fast. I know several pharma companies had to “reset” wages for everyone to account for it.
    Since we’re not seeing that anymore (and haven’t seen it for the past 10 years or so), I think we can safely say there isn’t a problem with the supply of synthetic chemists right now.

  9. Doug Steinman says:

    There is no question that the world has serious problems that can and should be addressed by STEM positions. We need better treatments for serious diseases, we need more energy efficient vehicles, we need better ways to generate electricity and we need to address global warming. The issue is how much are we willing to pay to attack these problems and where the money is going to come from. Another part of the discussion is who will be the employer of these STEM positions, government, private industry or research institutes. When these questions begin to be answered we will be able to bring the available STEM jobs and the number of individuals searching for those jobs into balance. Until that time, the rancor of this debate will not subside.

  10. ab says:

    @5 but, but…
    Two reasons: 1) Greater heterogeneity in STEM ability within the US vs within other countries (considering that a very small percentage of people will eventually be employed in a STEM career, average test scores across a country’s population are meaningless), and 2) Little data with regards to the MAGNITUDE of differential in test performance between the US and other countries, and how much that differential affects a population’s ability to perform. Although the US is often middle or front of the pack in test scores, I’ve rarely seen any data that quantifies how large a difference there is in test performance between #1 and #20. That difference may be very small and have little or no relation to actual ability to perform in a STEM career.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I agree, and think that it is also worth noting that test scores are in no way indicative of the quality of the STEM candidate across all fields. I know many many scientists or computer scientists that are brilliant and highly successful people that had abysmal test scores.
    You can’t test for creativity, and at some point you need to be creative to be highly successful in a STEM field.

  12. gippgig says:

    The real problem is that way too many people (not just scientists) want jobs. You don’t need a job to be a scientist. Been there, done that.
    I recently read somewhere (unfortunately I don’t recall where) about a survey showing 26% of people believed the sun circled the Earth. The general population is dangerously ignorant of STEM. That’s a major STEM shortage.

  13. Harrison says:

    @12: You could say the same for evolution. A 2009 Pew research study found 31% of Americans do not believe in evolution, 22% believe in intelligent design, and 32% believe in evolution.

  14. pEvans says:

    @12. I agree. Even if more of the population took one bacteriology course, the world would be a much safer place. STEM is pretty good training for thinking, period.
    Must say, this corner of the internet is largely inhabited by a highly specialized subgroup, and often times the posts have a strong ideological bias—I think if you want to read interesting (and perhaps more depressing) thinking on the subject, go to the O’Reilly Radar site. Those folks are brilliant neat, as in undiluted.

  15. Tomas says:

    There is one sense in which there is a STEM shortage, and that is the shortage of the extremely talented. From my computer scientist perpective, the university spew out innumerable regular Java programmers and the wages are stagnant.
    But at the very highest echelons of skill, the people with the golden touch, wages are not stagnant, but rising sharply. Information technologies multiple that person’s leverage enormously, and the benefits also accrue to them.
    What the country needs more of is not the next database admin, but the next Donald Knuth/Andrew Ng/substitute your favorite Nobel-contender. But we don’t really know how to make these people. The best lever we know is churning out more run-of-the-mill PhDs and hope one of them is The One. There are many (ordered!) levels of ability, nicely explained here:
    Business instinctively understand this, they have started paying their best management performers exospheric salaries in the past few decades. But they don’t have the recipe either, and are only too happy to ride on, and help feed, the wave of cheap labor the trying creates.
    Many policymakers probably think this way too (many are among the cream of the cream), but it’s basically a proposition unsaleable to voters.
    Most people can’t begin fathom the divide between themselves and a Donald Knuth. As a run of the mill PhD, I am in the top 90% in computer science ability, and when I sometimes get glimpses of the Olympic peaks when I talk to (or about) these people. But most of the time I sit around in my stupid daze and the highest forms of cognition these people possess are clearly unattainable to me. How do you explain that to the median voter eight or ten levels down?! Instead, you can go help push more STEM students, that being the best way we know, and collect some “tears of gratitude” from companies that hire a lot of them.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Several organizations are starting to use the “STEM-competent” tag to answer point(s) made @12, @13, @14
    One aspect that is incontrovertible is the lack of diversity in STEM fields compared to demographics in the US. We do need more women engineers and computer scientists; we do need more Latino/Hispanic and African American scientists and engineers – at all levels – BS, MS, PhD. My heart sinks each time I see a new program pushing students toward the doctorate (especially in the biomedical sciences) – but I relent when I see the discouraging numbers at present.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Several organizations are starting to use the “STEM-competent” tag to answer point(s) made @12, @13, @14
    One aspect that is incontrovertible is the lack of diversity in STEM fields compared to demographics in the US. We do need more women engineers and computer scientists; we do need more Latino/Hispanic and African American scientists and engineers – at all levels – BS, MS, PhD. My heart sinks each time I see a new program pushing students toward the doctorate (especially in the biomedical sciences) – but I relent when I see the discouraging numbers at present.

  18. jjc says:

    Perhaps the point of STEM hype is to promote the allowance of non-US residents to get work-visa to stay in this country and work. In the most recent C&E News there is an article that touches tangentially on this topic. In the interview Kumar states that if non-residents get trained in S and E graduate programs in the uS, America should hang onto them and grant visas. If we do not he says, “it is like letting gold slip through our (America’s) hands”.

  19. Lost in STEM says:

    48 year old STEM grad here. I’m just hoping to find a hiring manager who doesn’t think I’m “overqualified” before I need to file for personal bankruptcy.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Society can’t exactly say to young people that our business leaders ate all the seed corn and there is nothing worth studying, can it?

  21. Chrispy says:

    Well, there may not be a STEM shortage now, but there probably will be in the future. I have noticed that many STEM parents are encouraging their kids to go into other, more rewarding and reliable fields.

  22. Anonymous says:

    @1: “It’s not a myth- it’s a lie.”
    No, worse, it’s a meme!

  23. Andrew Ryan says:

    Those “appalling” test scores are largely due to demographics. White students in the US average a PISA Math score of 506, same as Austria and slightly lower than Germany (514) or Canada (518). However, the average US score (481) is dragged down by African-Americans (421), who fare about as well as Maylasia, Mexico, Costa Rica, etc. For the stats, see:
    Given the size of the white population in the US (223 million in 2010) the distribution will include more than a sufficient number of individuals with the intellectual goods to be in science.
    The thing is, they’re also smart enough to realize that there is a far more lucrative and comfortable lifestyle to be had outside of science.

  24. biotechie says:

    @23 Always great to put white supremacy in the same sentence as Austria and Germany in a comment!

  25. Anonymous says:

    @23 Andrew Ryan: I think you’re on the wrong forum. Or planet. You wouldn’t last 2 weeks at any decent company, assuming you could make it through the interview.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Blah blah blah, this is the same story for almost every field these days. There isn’t just a glut of STEM labor, there’s a glut of college degrees in all around. Everyone goes to college now and everyone feels the employment crises with automation taking more and more jobs and education stuck in a model that worked in the 1950s. Maybe people should start trying to create their own wealth instead of having to listen to idiots behind desks in HR departments tell them they are too “overqualified” for work. Unemployment will get worse in the future, as automation continues to eat up more jobs. Soon we’ll have to re-evaluate what exactly constitutes full time employment. What’s with hiring more people, but only at 20 hours per week?

  27. Jeff says:

    @23 Andrew Ryan: Your comment was born to be misconstrued.
    @24, 25: I think you’re missing Andrew’s intent.
    My family includes a number of teachers at various grade levels, and one of the phenomena I observe — especially with my daughter, who teaches middle-school English — is that the United States has become so demographically and linguistically diverse that we wind up spending substantial amounts of time doing essentially remedial education for basic literacy. Even highly intelligent children here are at a disadvantage if their English language skills are not sufficient to give them mastery of other subjects like STEM. It’s tough to communicate scientific information, for example, when you only marginally speak the same language as your students.
    Countries with less diversity, on the other hand, can spend more of their time actually teaching content rather than getting kids to the point of merely understanding the instructional language.
    This really isn’t a racial issue at all, but a reflection of where educational time gets spent as a function of the makeup of our respective societies.

  28. Anonymous says:

    The real myth is that that STEM workers will be paid the high wages that they have enjoyed in the past.

  29. NMH says:

    My Dad was a STEM worker from about 1955-1995. This was a great time for him, thanks, IMO, to communism. Communism did the following 1.) provided defense contracts from the government to his firm which kept him well-paid, and 2.) limited immigration from sources of cheap labor: not only the eastern Europe communist block, but also China. Also, at this time, India was leaning socialist (maybe it too had restrictive policies in the past).
    When the communist block of Eastern Europe and China collapsed, it was the beginning of the end of the well-paid STEM job for a average/mediocre STEM worker.
    Maybe it isnt such a bad thing for Putin to be on the march again, at least for the average American STEM worker.

  30. Anonymous says:

    why do we need “more women engineers and computer scientists… more Latino/Hispanic and African American scientists and engineers”?
    do these categories of people have demonstrably higher aptitude than the current population of engineers, scientists and computer nerds?
    or are you chasing a political goal, rather than objective improvements?

  31. Anonymous says:

    @27: I don’t know why the US should have such a problem with different languages. I live in Switzerland, and my daughter, age 5, speaks 3 languages quite fluently. Some of her school friends speak 4 or 5.

  32. Harrison says:

    @31: Switzerland is an interesting case, with 3 state languages and the associated infrastructure to make sure students are bilingual at a minimum.
    The US has no official language, 2nd lanugage instruction often starts around age 12 (perhaps the worst time to start, as ability to speak accent-free gets locked at about age 14), and there is little-to-no encouragement to learn another language other than the one of your road signs (in Miami, this means there are a lot of people who speak no-English).

  33. ab says:

    @31 and @32:
    The suggestion that few Americans speak a second or third language is immaterial to the STEM issue at hand. What @27 Jeff is referring to is the issue of people immigrating into the US who do not speak ENGLISH well, and therefore must overcome this barrier before any STEM education can even begin. This subset of the population effectively tanks the nation’s average test scores. And if you can understand this point, you can understand how it’s possible for a nation to have modest average STEM test scores AND a massive pool of exceptional scientists.

  34. LeeH says:

    Part of the apparent STEM confusion may be due to only having one category of workers. While the pharmaceutical field seems flush with talent, other fields may be in need. I have a friend who works for Intuit, and he bemoans the lack of qualified applicants. The same goes for my brother, who needs database programmers for his business (in Canada), who also has trouble finding people.

  35. Anonymous says:

    These last few comments remind me of a conversation I had some 25 years ago with a woman from Australia, who had come to my institute here in the US to do a post-doc. For reasons I can’t recall, she one day calmly informed me that American high schools are terrible, which is why American students do so poorly on international science aptitude tests.
    I calmly looked her in the eye and said “Then why did you come to this sub-standard country to do a post-doc?”
    She shut up. End of conversation.
    I agree with others, that having a large immigrant population skews our test results compared to other nations. If we only compared college-bound US students with good English proficiency to students in other countries, results would be far closer.

  36. exchemist says:

    I remember this stuff from the 90s and I’m sure it’s been around longer than that. Add into it tenured professors (winners of tournament system) with empires of contract, turning over low cost workforce (i.e. grad students).
    The failure of science types to understand intuitive supply and demand shows me they are not really so smart. Makes me wonder about their intuitive grasp of activation energies and the like in chemistry even.

  37. Anonymous says:

    @34: I was thinking the same thing. Lumping all STEM professions together and then talking about whether there are or are not enough people to fill all the positions seems ludicrous to me. It’s not as though they’re interchangeable–e.g. you can’t take an unemployed med chemist and just plop them into an available IT position.
    The availability of positions in STEM professions, like all other professions, is cyclical. There used to be a shortage of med chemists and the salaries were great; people rushed to be trained as a med chemist and now there’s an abundance. There used to be a shortage of pharmacists and the salaries were great; people saw those great salaries and they rushed to be trained as a pharmacist but there’s now becoming a glut of those, too. Today, there are shortages in some IT fields and areas like petroleum engineering. Consequently, the salaries in those areas are high right now (petroleum engineers coming out of college with a BS making $120K+, are you freaking kidding me?!?) Astute kids are rushing to get training in those fields so they can make great money but, guess what, in 10 years there will be a glut of them, too.
    The only thing there’s truly a shortage of are policymakers and academicians that understand that you can’t forcefully train students to fill positions that may or may not exist when it comes time for them to look for a job. What we should be doing is making sure we’re educating our kids with a basic understanding of the skills they need to actively participate in our society: some basic science so they don’t fall for bullshit like ‘structured water’; some math so they can laugh when a headline says eating some food increases your risk of some cancer by 80% (gasp!) but fails to mention that the risk goes from 0.10% to 0.18%; some finance so they can run a household without falling into debt. These aren’t too much to ask our children to learn.

  38. Jeff says:

    @33 AB: Thank you, that’s precisely what I was trying to get across. A country with several official languages is also likely to provide competent instruction in these languages; on the other hand, we have students in our schools who are only marginally literate in the only language used for most teaching.
    My daughter teaches middle school English and reading; some of her students are new immigrants who literally understand no English. One would expect that they would be enrolled in an ESOL track, but very often they are “mainstreamed” — another way of saying that they are thrown into the rapids and expected to learn to swim while dodging the rocks. A fair amount of her time is spent trying to figure out how to get her kids started without becoming hopelessly discouraged.
    This is on top of kids from functionally illiterate families, where the parent(s) lack the basic skills to pass on to their children, and who themselves do not value education. Politicians love to throw money at government programs, but the government doesn’t have much of a shot a providing what is lacking in the home.
    It’s a profoundly sad situation.

  39. Hap says:

    37: That would require either a willingness of employers to train people qualified in a base set of skills instead of having schools and other employers train them, or relatively low-cost retraining so that people could either preemptively train in related jobs or train while unemployed.
    I am cynical enough to think employers prefer the current situation (when the labor pool is full, salaries and benefits go down; when the labor pool is empty, they simply get people from other places or lobby Congress for cheaper labor). “Heads I win, tails you lose” always works out well for I.

  40. David says:

    Well this is depressing to me as a student with two years left until I graduate with a B.S. in biochemistry. 🙁 I still don’t regret my decision yet I have greatly enjoyed learning what I have so far and want to learn more. I guess I can just hope that a job will exist for me when I graduate.

  41. Chemjobber says:

    David: begin thinking and seriously preparing for what you want to do next, and you will likely be fine, no matter the quality of the job market.

  42. exchemist says:

    Have fun in med school, David. I recommend checking out the deals from the military.

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