You’ve probably heard that the nation trains too few scientists, mathematicians, engineers or computer techs to compete with China or India. Our schools are buzzing about that, and government is pouring money into teacher training, but experts are beginning to question the claim and to worry about a surplus.
2013 was a good year for Time-Warner Cable. Third quarter profits exceeded estimates and revenue from high-speed Internet customers was up 14%, but company executives claim they’re worried about the future.
“Technology is core to our success as a business – STEM, science, technology, engineering and math – all of them are," says Tessie Topol, Vice President for Corporate Social Responsibility and Community Affairs. “The US is far behind many other developed nations in math and science -- 25th in math and 17th in science, and without core skills in these subjects, not only will our business suffer, but as a nation we use all of these subjects to think critically and solve problems that we don’t even know are coming down the pike.”
So her company put a million dollars into a media campaign to get more kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math – a field collectively known as STEM. They got the likes of Magic Johnson to make public service announcements.
The company also launched a campaign called Connect a Million Minds, with a website for parents, a town hall-style event for kids and 14 episodes of a magazine show that promotes the joys of STEM study.
“Bravo,” says Ben Castleman, who teaches at UVA’s Curry School of Education. Every child should have a solid foundation in science and math. “Students are developing problem-solving skills, analytic skills. They’re often working in teams. They’re having to come up with creative solutions, which is great for the student. It’s also great for an evolving economy.”
“Right On!” says Mark McNamee – Sr. Vice President and Provost at Virginia Tech. “Almost everything you do today in industry is getting more sophisticated, more computationally dependent, more robotics, more simulation. The kinds of individuals they need in these jobs are expected to be adaptable, work in teams, be creative, and I think they want to make sure students are interested in these areas and continue to get the kind of education that will be useful.”
But “Beware!” says Michael Teitelbaum, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. He agrees that 21st century kids need a solid education in science and math, but the general claim that America has too few scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians is, he says, a myth.
“Many of the claims of shortages that are general across all fields and across the whole country are coming from employers in those particular narrow fields where there actually probably are shortages. So what they’re doing is saying, “I am having trouble hiring the people that I want to hire here in Silicon Valley or here in this particular rapidly growing field, and therefore there are general shortages. The evidence doesn’t support the general shortage argument.”
True, in some fields like petroleum engineering or cyber security there are many jobs that pay well, but a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute in DC concludes the US has more than enough people to fill most STEM positions.
Lindsay Lowell, a scholar at Georgetown, co-authored the study. “About half of STEM graduates coming out today don’t land a STEM job. You can expand that to look at people who end up in healthcare, which is not STEM, or end up in STEM management, or just simply say the job is closely related, and you still only come up with two-thirds of people with a STEM degree finding work in a STEM job.”
And in some fields there’s a real glut. McNamee concedes, for example, that it’s hard for people with PhD’s in the life sciences to find work in academia. “The competition for regular faculty positions can be pretty stiff. If people are flexible, they seem to find a good place. If they have their heart set on a regular faculty position at a certain type of institution, then in fact it can always be challenging. It’s a very competitive area.”
Still, he and Castleman assert that STEM training will prove valuable in other jobs.
Teitelbaum is not convinced. “Some people think it’s fine – that they’ve gotten educated in let’s say high energy physics and that’s a useful base for them to be a bond trader, but I think it’s not a very efficient system. It’s quite wasteful of their time and of government and other resources to encourage them to do advanced degrees in very specific, narrow fields of science for which there is not sufficient demand.”
And he scolds IT companies pushing the U.S. government to give work visas to more foreign graduates, because the U.S. has too few people with degrees in computer science. “Most of the people in that field do not come from computer science.”
Teitelbaum has written a book about this nation’s obsession with training more people for STEM jobs.
“One of the chapters catalogs five periods since World War II in which there have been claims of shortages, followed by government response to increase the number of scientists and engineers, a booming growth in supply, followed by a collapse in demand and a bust for those coming out with degrees in these fields. It’s a pretty sad history.”
Today, researcher Lindsay Lowell crunches the numbers and concludes there are so many smart, well-educated kids in this country, that concerns about too few STEM graduates are overblown.
“The United States graduates from high schools essentially one-third of the top quintile performers on international science tests. The number of students who end up making it through college – getting a STEM degree – is about four percent. The number who end up in a STEM job is 2-2.5 percent.”
Professor Castleman adds that it’s unwise for the U.S. to become dependent on foreign workers to meet our STEM needs.
“Those countries are also often developing quite rapidly economically themselves, and I think will increasingly be in a position to retain their own workers.”
And Michael Teitelbaum says STEM companies worried about getting good, qualified people to join them might consider raising wages and improving benefits. The Economic Policy Institute noted, for example, that pay for IT is about where it was in the late 90’s.