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Don't Believe the Naysayers: The STEM Skills Shortage Is Real

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If we are to believe a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, employers' acute and growing concern that they cannot find the skilled STEM workers they need is really much ado about nothing. The report's authors come to this conclusion by taking a very narrow view of data on supply and demand. But from our perspective at Change the Equation -- a nonprofit working closely with the companies facing the real-world consequences of a shortage -- the STEM shortage is very real, and very urgent.

The EPI report concludes that U.S. colleges and universities award more than enough STEM degrees to fill STEM jobs. That may be true, but it doesn't lessen the urgency of the skills shortage. Why? Because by limiting their analysis to STEM jobs alone, the report's authors miss the forest for the trees.

When you step back to see the big picture, you will find that the pressing need for STEM skills extends well beyond the five percent of all jobs typically classified as STEM jobs. An influential Georgetown University study concluded that the demand for STEM skills has grown fastest outside of traditional STEM fields. Many STEM graduates are getting snatched up by employers in areas like finance, management and health care, and that leaves STEM employers competing for talent. (Curiously, the EPI report does not acknowledge the Georgetown study, which has become a touchstone in most debates about the STEM shortage.)

So it turns out that all those employers who can't find the STEM talent they need aren't just hallucinating. Many companies -- from Silicon Valley start-ups to established giants like Accenture and Microsoft -- report serious problems filling STEM jobs. National surveys of employers from organizations like Manpower and Silicon Valley Bank confirm these hiring difficulties. A Change the Equation analysis (which included health care) found that, even in the economically sluggish years of 2009-2012, the number of STEM-focused job postings outnumbered unemployed STEM professionals by nearly two to one.

These shortages have driven up STEM wages, despite EPI's claims to the contrary. Yes, the economic downturns in 2001 and 2009 did slow the progression -- that is what downturns do. Yet the Georgetown study showed that people who have STEM degrees out-earn those who do not, even when you control for their education level. This "STEM premium" has been growing for at least 15 years.

And the STEM shortage is likely to get worse before it gets better, especially as the economy picks up steam. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, STEM jobs alone will have grown 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the 10 percent growth predicted for all other job areas. The growing demand for STEM skills outside traditional STEM fields will only exacerbate the pressure on employers.

H1-B visas, which allow STEM professionals from other countries to fill at least part of the void, should be nothing more than a stopgap measure. Our real focus must be on preparing young Americans for the jobs of the future. This is both a moral and an economic imperative.

Currently, we are under-educating low-income and minority students, who lag behind their peers in math and science and therefore face far greater barriers to pursuing STEM degrees or certificates in post-secondary education. Women are also getting STEM degrees in relatively low numbers. As a result, well over half of the nation's population is all but excluded from many of the nation's fastest-growing and most rewarding occupations. This is an affront to our founding ideal of equal opportunity. It also drastically limits our ability as a nation to continue leading the world in scientific and technological innovation.

The EPI report certainly shows that the debate over STEM and the workforce is far from finished. But at Change the Equation we see every day the effect the STEM shortage is having on business right now. The EPI's narrow view of a problem does a disservice to businesses and future employees alike.

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