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Monday, October 14, 2013

Is The STEM Crisis A Myth?

Teacher Heather Scott and students Stephanie Lamas, Dana Bielinski and Smriti Marwaha examine a test tube at Science Careers in Search of Women, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Teacher Heather Scott and students Stephanie Lamas, Dana Bielinski and Smriti Marwaha examine a test tube at Science Careers in Search of Women, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. (Argonne National Laboratory)

President Obama has asked that an “all hands on deck” approach be taken in regards to getting more people trained in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields because there is a shortage of qualified prospective employees.

Contributing editor for IEEE Spectrum magazine, Robert Charette, recently wrote a piece arguing the STEM crisis is a myth and that there are more people trained in the STEM fields than there are jobs. Charette says the myth has existed for years and it affects not only the U.S., but the global economy.


  • Robert Charette, contributing editor of IEEE Spectrum Magazine. He tweets @RiskFactorBlog.




And we've been hearing for years: We're in a STEM crisis. Bill Gates testified before Congress that without more science, technology, engineering and math or STEM graduates, we'll fall behind other countries. President Obama, responding to a 2012 report from his advisors, called for graduating 100,000 students and teachers a year for 10 years in the STEM fields. He's asking for $3 billion a year toward STEM education. And study after study backs up his claim that without those workers, the U.S. will fall behind.

But consultant and engineer Robert Charette wrote an article for IEEE Spectrum magazine - that's a favorite of techies - with an opposing opinion. He joins us now. Welcome.

ROBERT CHARETTE: Well, thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: You found other studies as well, though. What did they show?

CHARETTE: Well, what they showed was, not only in the U.S. but in other countries, that there really is some doubts about whether or not there is a STEM shortage or whether or not there's actually a broader skills shortage. For instance, in the U.K., there were reports recently, studies that were done, that showed that six out of 10 U.K. employers were turning away perfectly capable graduates in STEM and other skills because they didn't want to pay them the wages that they had.

But if you go back all the way back to the 1950s, you can find, study after study, one by Blank and Stigler, who later won a Nobel Prize in Economics back in 1957, called "The Demand and Supply of Scientific Personnel," which said there was no shortage then. What was interesting about that study that came out in June of 1957, of course, but it came out in October, and all of a sudden we have this massive shortage. But you can go basically every five to 10 years and find study after study that says there isn't a shortage, yet we hear this persistent cry of a shortage.

YOUNG: Well, let's go back to what you said because every time we do this topic, we hear from people who say the same thing. It's not that there's a shortage of workers. It's that the pool includes people who want to be paid well. They think this is about the push to open up H-1B visas. These are temporary immigration permits for skilled workers from outside the country so that companies can bring in foreign skilled workers who will take lower pay.

CHARETTE: Well, I think that's part of the issue. There's a claim among manufacturers, among other types in the I-tech industry that say that we don't have the skills, that we don't have the numbers nor do we have the skills. And if you take a look and you listen to people like Gary Becker, who's a Nobel Prize winner in economics who talks about bringing in a million or more H-1B visas - in fact, he doesn't want to have any visa limits - to lower the earning premium that STEM workers get in this country.

Alan Greenspan made that same point a few years ago, saying that basically our skilled workers are paid too much. And all of this is to try to increase the economic capability of the States in comparison to the rest of the world. But it's a pretty hard sell to STEM students if you say to them, well, the government really thinks you're paid too much, and it's going to do everything in its power to lower your pay.

YOUNG: Well, take us to another area here because you say another surprise that you found in merely digging deeper into this is that there's a mismatch between getting that STEM degree and then having a STEM job. What do you mean?

CHARETTE: We graduate many more folks in STEM than there are STEM jobs. Georgetown University did a study and estimates between 250 and 275,000 jobs open up in STEM every year. And of those, about 180,000 are for bachelor's degrees. But if you take a look at the pipeline, right now we're producing 250,000 STEM bachelor degrees, another 80,000 masters, another 20,000 PhDs, 40,000 associate degrees. And then, if you add in the H-1B visas, another 50,000.

In the pipeline, there's over 440,000 folks who are newly minted going after these 250 to 275,000 jobs. And so what's happening is you're finding students graduating with some pretty strong credentials not getting jobs at all.

YOUNG: Well, let's stay with that for a second. Are they not getting the jobs or not wanting the jobs? In other words, are people graduating in fields like science and math and then choosing to go somewhere else?

CHARETTE: There's not a lot of people who goes through an engineering or science degree and then decide, well, this - I'm going to go do something else. I'm going to go wait tables. After I published this story, I got an email from a young graduate from Ohio State University. She got her degree, a BS in physics, and she's been looking for over a year for a job. She has sent out resumes, 20 to 30 resumes every week for the past year. She's done 30 interviews in 10 states, and she can't get a job. She has not only her undergraduate degree but she worked two years in a laboratory, did everything that recruiters told her that she need to do and can't get a job. I just met recently a Ph.D. from John Hopkins(ph) and he can't get a job. What he's doing right now is he's tutoring high school students.

My argument is that the future requires a better understanding, a better integrated understanding of science, mathematics, literature, English. All these things are needed because society in the future isn't getting any less complicated. I think that the focus is so much on a STEM crisis, on the science and technology because scientists and technologists are looked upon to save the U.S., to get us out of this economic black hole that we're in, that we're kind of missing the point.

The point is is that we have to teach children how to learn how to learn, and that's very important. They're going to have three, five, six careers because they're going to live a lot longer than you or I. Their average lifespan is going to be probably close to a hundred, if not more. So if you're talking about trying to manage a career over a long period of time, you better have really good groundings in math, in science, in the liberal arts to be able to think extremely well.

And that's not what we're really focusing on. What we're focusing on is trying to increase the education of a small elite group of students rather than a broad-based approach to education. I think if you're going to be a STEM student today, you need to understand what you're getting yourself into.

It's a great career, but it's also one that if you take a look at the stats - and this has been for a very long time - is that you probably have a good 15 or 20-year technical career at the most and then you better prepare yourself to move on to something else.

YOUNG: Robert Charette, management consultant and president of the ITABHI Corp., a business and technology risk management consultancy. His article about whether or not there is a STEM crisis, a lack of workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is in IEEE Spectrum. We'll link you at hereandnow.org. Robert, thanks so much.

CHARETTE: Well, thank you very much, Robin.

YOUNG: So what are your thoughts especially if you work or hope to work in a STEM field? We hear continuously of STEM companies looking for workers. Are you having a hard time finding them? Go to hereandnow.org. Let us know. You can also send a tweet: @hereandnow, @hereandnowrobin, @jeremyhobson. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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