Is the STEM shortage a myth?

On the Big Bang Theory, physicist Sheldon visits neuroscientist Amy in her lab.

The shortage of scientists and engineers is a myth, writes Michael S. Teitelbaum in The Atlantic.  If there were a real shortage, wages would be rising, he writes. To the contrary, “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.”

U.S. students earn mediocre scores on international exams because large numbers of high performers are balanced by lots of low performers, he argues. 

. . . there continues to be a large pool of top science and math students in the U.S. OECD data on “high-performing” students suggests that the U.S. produces about 33 percent of the world total in this category in the sciences, though only about 14 percent in mathematics.

“Every high school graduate should be competent in science and mathematics — essential to success in almost any 21st century occupation and to informed citizenship as well,” he writes. But that doesn’t mean there’s a huge unmet demand for scientists and engineers.  

The STEM shortage myth is a myth, responds Robert D. Atkinson in the Washington Monthly‘s College Guide. Science and engineering graduates are finding jobs — not just in tech-based industries — at higher wages.

As the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rothwell shows, the earnings premium for STEM skills (controlling for experience, education and sex) has grown from around 22 percent in 1990 to 30 percent in 2012. Dartmouth’s Matt Slaughter and UC San Diego’s Gordon Hanson found that “the inflation-adjusted wages of major STEM occupations grew over the last decade while real wages for most other U.S. occupations fell.” Hardly evidence of surplus.

STEM shortage denial is rooted in a desire to keep out high-tech immigrants, Atkinson argues.

You can’t go wrong with a computer science major, writes Yahoo’s Rick Newman, looking at PayScale’s 2014 College Report. 

Only two of 288 schools that offer computer science — Indiana University-Purdue and Virginia Commonwealth — produced a return below the median for their graduates. At the top of the scale, meanwhile, more than a dozen computer-science schools returned $1 million or more over 20 years, making this the top-performing field.

By contrast, the return-on-investment for business majors varies depending on the college, he points out. “At nine schools, including Fayetteville State in North Carolina, the University of Montevallo in Alabama and Colorado Mesa University, students studying business actually earned a negative return, according to PayScale. That means they would have done better, on average, if they went to work right out of high school and never spent money on college.”

The earnings data relies on self-reporting, so be wary.

In This is Not Your Father’s STEM Job, Jessica Lahey looks at women who are “forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.”

But are they typical of female STEM workers? Probably not.

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  1. PhillipMarlowe says:

    Paul Craig Roberts has been writing about this for years.
    Here’s a report from 8 years ago, based upon employment data from the government.:
    The Death of US EngineeringThe alleged “shortage” of US engineering graduates is inconsistent with reports from Duke University that 30 to 40 percent of students in its master’s of engineering management program accept jobs outside the profession. About one-third of engineering graduates from MIT go into careers outside their field. Job outsourcing and work visas for foreign engineers are reducing career opportunities for American engineering graduates and, also, reducing salary scales.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    You can’t go wrong with a computer science major…

    … unless what you really want to do is sing or teach or write or paint or cook or build houses or climb telephone poles or jump out of airplanes and shoot people or answer phones or sell cars or make a perfect cup of coffee.

    Then a computer science major very well might be the ticket to an economically prosperous but ultimately miserable existence.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Good math skills, and by extension STEM skills, do not preclude those other opportunities. I was amazed at the eclectic backgrounds of the guys I knew in the Infantry. STEM and photography and philosophy and so forth.
      Had a long talk with a lady yesterday whose eighteen year old son is a very high-functioning Aspie. Starting in kindergarten, he was quoting everything from the student handbook to the relevant state law to teachers and educrats who weren’t up to scratch.
      Great in computers. In fact, it probably wasn’t him who changed everybody’s grade in the school computer,but he explained how he’d have done it if he’d done it. So the IT guy undid it.
      However, he’s an Aspie and all those other fields are foreclosed for him and not because of his STEM skills.
      Let’s keep in mind the cart/horse sequence. Unfortunate as it may be for some.

  3. Norm Matloff in the UC system has also written about this, there is NO STEM shortage, but rather a lack of companies to hire and possibly with some OJT have some good productive workers.

    HR weenies want everything under the sun, and once you reach the age of 50, most STEM workers are pretty much left out to pasture (since they consider persons over the age of 50 expensive in terms of health care), and with outsourcing, they can hire cheap and easy overseas.

    The tech companies keep wanting a higher H-1B cap, despite numerous people who could do the job, if given an opportunity to do so.


    • There was recently some blog buzz about how in Silicon Valley, at 40 you were done. People in their 30s are getting plastic surgery to try to keep/get a job.

      So technically there will always be a shortage when it is up to 35 and over the hill. That’s only about 12-18 years on the job as far as the IT entrepreneurs are concerned.

  4. Sounds about right to me. I have both a BS and an MS in math, yet whenever I’ve tried looking for a job using “mathematics,” the bulk of postings consist of positions that list “good math skills” (i.e. arithmetic) as one of the requirements – everything from commission sales to clerks to receptionists – all stuff that decidedly does not require the heavy lifting of a degree, let alone an advanced degree.

    If there’s been a shortage of mathematicians over the past 25+ years, somehow I’ve missed it, and now as Bill alludes to, my “sell-by” date has come and gone ~

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Given current conditions, having a STEM degree, even if you don’t end up–I mean start out–at six figures in a big lab, may still give you the best options among what’s left.

  6. PhillipMarlowe says:

    Paul Krugman weighs in:

    But the belief that America suffers from a severe “skills gap” is one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.

    And it does a lot of harm.