06/02/2014 06:29 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2014

5 Things You Should Know About Shortages of Scientists and Engineers

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By now everyone will have heard -- from many sources, and many times over -- that the weaknesses of the United States' K-12 education have produced a dangerous shortage in the "STEM" workforce -- an acronym standing for "Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics." As a result, the U.S. is in danger of falling behind its international competitors in both economic and strategic terms.

The claims have come repeatedly from seemingly knowledgeable sources: most prominently CEOs and their lobbyists at computing and information technology companies; some leaders in higher education; many federal and state politicians in both parties; editorial writers at leading newspapers; columnists and pundits galore.

Some of those repeating such claims may believe them. While they may not have direct knowledge on the subject, they are echoing what they have heard from "credible sources."

Some may not really believe there are shortages, but know that such alarming assertions have a long history of success in convincing the federal government to support increased Federal funding, tax benefits, or visas for foreign workers in these fields.

As to the lobbyists who have been retained to promote such claims, they are simply representing their clients and doing the job for which they are being (generously) paid.

As you listen to such claims, here are five things you should know.

1) Almost all objective analysts have been unable to find evidence of broad-based "shortages" in the science and engineering workforce. Wages have generally been flat or rising more slowly than those in other highly-skilled occupations. Unemployment rates have been higher than occupations in "shortage" would show. And both mid-career and recently-graduated scientists and engineers graduates in many fields have not experienced attractive career prospects. While there is little evidence supporting claims of widespread "shortages," some signs of tight supply can be found -- in a few new or rapidly-growing sub-fields, during boom periods in specific high-tech industries and especially in a few "hothouse" locales such as Silicon Valley during such booms. Hence some proponents of shortage claims may simply be over-generalizing from these particular settings to the whole of the country, to the whole of science and engineering, or even to all "STEM" occupations -- a perilous and misleading argument.

2) There is a long and damaging history of "alarm/boom/bust" cycles initiated by such shortage claims, going back at least to World War II. In my recent book Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, I detail five such 10-15 year cycles, some of which occurred during the lifetime of nearly everyone old enough to be reading this article.1 Each followed the same rough sequence. First the alarm was sounded of current or "looming" shortages. The U.S. government responded with measures to sharply increase the number of scientists and engineers -- expanding funding for education or research or admitting large numbers of foreign workers in science and engineering. After 5-10 years of booming expansion, political enthusiasm or short-term economic booms waned into destructive multi-year busts in which tens of thousands of mid-career scientists and engineers were laid off and by-then rising numbers of younger entrants found themselves facing disheartening career prospects. These busts in turn discouraged students from pursuing science and engineering majors, thereby initiating the next cycle of alarm/boom/bust.

3) Public discussion of these issues is remarkably garbled -- even "STEM" is invoked with wildly different meanings. Everyone does agree that graduate scientists and engineers are a part of the STEM workforce, and that their research and development work is a critical source of dynamism and creativity for the US economy. And yet they represent a surprisingly small 5 percent of the overall workforce of about 155 million -- only about 8 million. Some proponents magnify "STEM" by including large numbers of healthcare workers, although most are engaged in clinical services rather than research and development. More recently, one think-tank report has re-defined the STEM workforce to include 20 percent (30 million) of the total, by including large numbers of heating and air conditioning installers, auto technicians, carpenters and plumbers who report using more than average levels of math, computing, or science. If the size of the STEM workforce can be defined to be anywhere from 8 to 30 million, or 5 to 20 percent of the total, it is no wonder that public discussion is rife with confusion. So when you next read claims about STEM workforce shortages, you should ask what species of STEM is being discussed.

4) The performance in international science and math tests by American 15-year-olds is a matter of legitimate concern, but has little to do with education of sufficient numbers of US scientists and engineers. Most "shortage" proponents point to below-average (or even "mediocre") average performance of American 15-year-old students in international comparisons provided by OECD's PISA exam, and argue that U.S. schools simply are not producing enough graduates capable of majoring in STEM fields. Like all exaggerations, there are some threads of truth to these claims. American 15-year-olds' average scores in science and (especially) in math are clustered near the middle of international rankings with those of other OECD countries (France, United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, or Spain), but below those of some other reasonably large OECD countries such as Japan and South Korea. Certainly the US average scores do not rank among the top 10 "countries" in these rankings, although these turn out to be dominated by a few very small countries (Lichtenstein, Estonia) along with 3-4 Asian entities that actually are cities or city-states rather than typical countries (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore). While some cite Shanghai's very high average scores as reflecting strong performance by Chinese 15-year-olds, there actually are no PISA scores for China as a whole. The middle-ranked American scores result from averaging the high scores of its large tiers of top-performing students with the low scores of its also-large and weakly-performing lower tiers. As such they reflect the well-known deep inequalities of U.S. primary and secondary education, a serious and persistent deficiency that is very legitimate concern. Yet this disturbingly unequal system produces more than enough high-performing students to populate the small percent of its workforce in science and engineering.

5) Recent political and media discussions of the science and engineering workforce have been dominated by interest groups promoting shortage claims. Literally tens of millions of dollars have already been spent on lobbying and publicity efforts to make this case, and an even more concerted effort is underway now. Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg has organized a $50 million fund ( to lobby urgently for passage of pending legislation that includes dramatic increases in the number of "STEM" visas. Announced contributors include many other billionaire corporate leaders in software, computing, and information technology. With these sorts of financial resources available for lobbying and publicity, everyone should expect to hear widespread repetition of shortages claims over the coming months.

It may be that we now are in the early stages of a sixth postwar cycle of alarm/boom/bust. There is no way to know for sure until policy decisions have been made and their outcomes assessed over the ensuing decade. Based on past experience, we should not be surprised to see a booming expansion in the science and engineering workforce over the coming years primarily due to expanded visas, followed 5-10 years later by a new bust with mass layoffs and poor career prospects that discourage American students to pursue studies and careers in these fields -- followed by renewed claims of "shortage."

Michael S. Teitelbaum is Senior Research Associate at the Labor and Worklife Program of Harvard Law School, and author of Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent (Princeton University Press, 2014).

1. These five cycles can be identified briefly by their initial triggers: the 1950s start of the Cold War; the US political panic after the early Sputnik launches; the Reagan defense buildup; the high-tech booms and Y2K panic of the 1990s; and the Clinton-Bush doubling of the NIH budget over a five-year period from 1998. For detailed discussion of each of these cycles, see Chapter 2 of Falling Behind?