STEM Shortage Discussion

In science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), does the United States face a talent shortage or not? Like the brain drain issue, I started out on the side of crisis. The more I study the problem, the more I agree with “The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage.” Earlier today, I read a rebuttal to that argument and it gave me pause:

Let’s look at [Teitelbaum’s claims]. First, he, like most of the shortage deniers, argues that “U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S & E job openings”. But this counts social science and health degrees, which are not really STEM jobs. Moreover, it’s not accurate to count just job openings, you need to count all hires, including ones when a worker retires or leaves to raise a child. When you do both of these adjustments, the ratio is pretty close to one-to-one.

But it’s even worse than that. Many STEM grads work outside of tech-based industries (e.g., the Intels and Mercks of the world) because employers in other industries need them. As Tony Carnivale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, writes (pdf), “…the diversion of STEM talent and STEM workers into other occupations results from the increasing value of the competencies that are associated with STEM occupations…. In all but two occupational clusters, the rate of growth in demand for core STEM competencies has increased at far greater rates than the growth in employment.”

Teitelbaum would also have us believe that all is well because more students than ever are interested in STEM. If so, why then do 4 times more high school students take the AP Art History test than the AP Computer Science Test? It’s not because of those high wages in art history jobs. Moreover even if they are interested in STEM, a large share switch out to other majors. Seymour and Hewett found that 44% of STEM majors witch [sic] out compared to just 30% of humanities majors.

On my second read (admittedly flummoxed), the part I highlighted stood out as a red flag. What an odd question. I’m on straw man alert. If the chief lobbyist for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation had left that out, I might have taken a fresh look at the data.

The rhetoric of the persuasive essay smells fishy throughout. I couldn’t pin down why I was so skeptical. The AP statistic gives me confidence to call K Street’s bluff.

Back in my high school days, a student took an AP exam to boost admission prospects and bank a few college credits. That was a couple of decades ago. Do today’s high school students prefer to take the AP Art History exam over AP Biology (an exam I took way back in 1987)? I doubt it. Last time I checked, biology counted as a STEM course.

President Information Technology and Innovation Foundation needs kids who code. The cost of tech talent is too damn high. So Robert D. Atkinson demonstrates why he was afraid to take the AP English exam. Since he can’t make a compelling case, he takes cheap shots.

Hidden in Atkinson’s desperation is a lesson for industry demanding more STEM talent. From the same above quoted passage, “many STEM grads work outside of tech-based industries (e.g., the Intels and Mercks of the world) because employers in other industries need them.” Lots of non-STEM grads work at the Intels and Mercks of the world, too. I should know. I’m married to an anthropologist who toils in tech. She studied female genital mutilation in Kenya and now sells videoconferencing software.

Along those lines, Dr. Robert D. Atkinson doesn’t have any STEM graduate degrees. I’m not sure he has a STEM undergraduate degree. He’s just a tech policy guy. But a good education can take anyone far afield.

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