Op-Ed: STEM Jobs Shortage Claims Don't Tell The Whole Story

The issue of visas for STEM workers is layered and far-reaching, but a recent article by Edie Fraser misses the mark.

Edie Fraser, CEO of StemConnector, penned an article in the Huffington Post, saying that Science, Technology, Math & Engineering (STEM) jobs are not being filled by Americans because Americans lack the skills in STEM-related fields to fill the ever-increasing need for STEM jobs. Fraser:

The talent -- and more critically, the skills -- are just not there to be had. We have little to no supply to meet the ever-growing demand. Think of it, in this economy with record unemployment rates, U.S. businesses are unable to fill jobs because of basic skills gaps in the workforce. In industries as varied as consumer goods, oil and gas, utilities, food and beverage, computing and manufacturing, even welding, we simply don't have the qualified candidates to hire.

Actually, there are more qualified STEM candidates than ever before, but most of those jobs are not going to Americans. The problem isn't that America has fallen behind, it's that other countries have caught up, and their wages are cheaper. American STEM workers didn't suddenly vanished, they were replaced by cheaper labor, often having to train their replacements on their way out.

A July 7 article by the Washington Post examined a reverse phenomenon: scientists who couldn't find a job. The article quotes Jim Austin of Science Careers: "Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed."

A 2004 study by the Rand Corporation lays it out in plain English:

Despite recurring concerns about potential shortages of STEM personnel in the U.S. workforce, particularly in engineering and information technology, we did not find evidence that such shortages have existed at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon.

If there were shortages of STEM workers, we would expect these shortages to be reflected in certain economic indicators, most notably low levels of unemployment and rising wages for STEM workers. However, in examining earning patterns and employment patterns for STEM workers, we found no patterns that were consistent with a shortage of STEM workers. The statistics do not portray the kinds of vigorous earnings and employment prospects that would be expected to draw increasing numbers of workers into STEM fields.
Likewise, “underemployment patterns”—indications of STEM workers involuntarily working out of their fields—suggest that underemployment of STEM workers is relatively high compared with non-STEM workers.

A 2008 study by Robert Hira delved into outsourcing as a major cause:

The rise of India and China in these sectors will affect the U.S. NIS, which is already undergoing structural changes from shifts in employment relations, privatesector management strategies, university internationalization, and a more uncertain and volatile domestic STEM labor market.

While outsourcing is, to some degree an inevitable part of globalization, it is not something that can't be mitigated, should the U.S. government decide it wants to. Just today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to extend visas for educated STEM workers. While it's hard to argue with letting these people stay in the country, the influx of visas for educated STEM workers is what caused the initial drop in STEM jobs held by Americans.

It's a fascinating policy debate, one with major domestic and global implications. Fraser's piece doesn't touch on any of that, which is too bad, because this debate needs real thought, not industry talking points.

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