Fernando Fischmann

The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent

9 July, 2015 / Articles

Pronouncements like the following have become common currency: “The United States is falling behind in a global ‘race for talent’ that will determine the country’s future prosperity, power, and security.” In Falling Behind?, Michael Teitelbaum argues that alarms like this one, which he quotes, are not only overblown but are often sounded by people who do not disclose their motives. Teitelbaum vehemently denies that we are lagging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, now commonly abbreviated as STEM. Still, he writes that there are facts to be faced:

  • In less than 15 years, China has moved from 14th place to second place in published research articles.
  • General Electric has now located the majority of its R&D personnel outside the United States.
  • Only four of the top ten companies receiving United States patents last year were United States companies.
  • The United States ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

A recurring complaint is that not enough of our young people and adults have the kinds of competence the coming century will require, largely because not nearly enough are choosing careers that require the skills of STEM. A decade ago, the Business Roundtable was urging that we “double the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates with bachelor’s degrees by 2015.” We’re now at that year, but the number of degrees awarded in those fields has barely budged. More recently, a panel appointed by President Obama asked for another ten-year effort, this time to add “one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”1 Where the missile race was measured by numbers of warheads, now we hear of a race to award more diplomas.

Contrary to such alarmist demands, Falling Behind? makes a convincing case that even now the US has all the high-tech brains and bodies it needs, or at least that the economy can absorb. Teitelbaum points out that “US higher education routinely awards more degrees in science and engineering than can be employed in science and engineering occupations.” Recent reports reinforce his claim. A 2014 study by the National Science Board found that of 19.5 million holders of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, only 5.4 million were working in those fields, and a good question is what they do instead. The Center for Economic Policy and Research, tracing graduates from 2010 through 2014, discovered that 28 percent of engineers and 38 percent of computer sciencetists were either unemployed or holding jobs that did not need their training.2

Teitelbaum stresses a fact of the labor market: contrary to the warnings from a variety of panels and roundtables, public and private employers who might hire STEM workers have not been creating enough positions for all the people currently being trained to fill them. Take physics, a quintessential STEM science. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in its latest Occupational Outlook Handbook, forecasts that by 2022 the economy will have 22,700 nonacademic openings for physicists. Yet during the preceding decade 49,700 people will have graduated with physics degrees. The anomaly is that those urging students toward STEM studies are not pressing employers to ensure that the jobs will be there. And as we shall see, the employers often turn to foreign workers for the jobs they have to fill.

It’s true that the US has fewer people studying the subjects involved in STEM than many other countries. The chief reason is that more of our students choose to major in business and liberal arts. But that doesn’t signify a paucity of interest. Among the high school seniors who took the ACT and SAT tests last year, fully 23 percent said that they intended to major in mathematics, computer science, engineering, or a physical or natural science. And those contemplating programs related to health made up another 19 percent. But something evidently happens between their freshman and senior years. By graduation, the number of students who start in STEM fields falls by a third and in health by a half. In engineering, of every one hundred who start, only fifty-five make it to a degree. Why the attrition?

For some, the STEM program they planned on may be more demanding than they envisaged. Or they may be put off by how a subject is treated in college. Teitelbaum quotes the president of the Association of American Universities, who cites a less publicized cause: “poor undergraduate teaching in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and engineering, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years.” Of course, bad teaching has varied causes. But it may be more apparent in STEM fields, where fixed material has to be covered; the reactions of many students suggests that many professors apparently see no need to make their teaching appealing. While student ratings have drawbacks, those in Table A hint at serious problems in STEM classrooms (see below). In mathematics, few freshmen meet a full-time professor close up. A recent survey by the American Mathematical Society found that 87 percent of all classes are taught by graduate assistants, adjuncts, or instructors on annual contracts.



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