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The Need for More STEM Workers

I’ve been enjoying Niall Ferguson’s new PBS series on the rise of civilization in Western Europe. One of the many lessons is that other societies—like China and the Ottoman Empire—were seemingly well positioned to lead the world into an industrial revolution, but at key points, their leaders rejected scholarship, scientific inquiry, and trade, while, haltingly, those things began to flourish in Western Europe, its universities, and its chartered commercial and learning institutions, like the Royal Society of London. As a result, non-western regions stagnated and missed out on economic development until much later.

Fortunately, the United States government, its businesses, and its people still place a high value on science. To give two examples, according to National Science Foundation statistics, 82 percent of Americans agree with the proposition that the federal government should fund basic scientific research, which is roughly unchanged since 1985. Only seven countries spend more on R&D as a share of GDP and none spend as much in total.

Yet, in a troubling development, far too few of the nation’s young men and women are pursuing higher education in STEM fields (e.g. Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Engineering, Computer Science, and Math), even as demand soars. I’ve been analyzing data on job openings from the Conference Board’s Help-Wanted Online Series. It’s clear that STEM jobs are taking longer to fill than non-STEM jobs, a sign that finding the right candidate takes more time. More directly, there are simply many more vacancies in STEM fields than there are STEM degree holders. In the average large metro, 30 percent of job openings are in STEM fields but just 11 percent of the population have a STEM degree.

This goes way beyond meeting the mercurial needs of corporate America. STEM workers are disproportionately involved in creating and running successful tech companies, as recent work by Vivek Wadhwa has shown, and coming up with breakthrough inventions, as William Baumol and others have shown. It’s not an exaggeration to say that STEM workers are the driving force of economic prosperity.

Unfortunately, the problem is not being solved by our universities. Wendy Kauffman, of NPR, reported this morning that the University of Washington is actually turning down 75 percent of current students who have completed the prerequisites to major in computer science and applied, because they just don’t have enough space and funding to teach them.

Apparently, the Washington state legislature has resisted increasing funding to appropriate levels because it costs more to train science majors than majors in business, art, or other popular degrees. That’s amazingly self-defeating. Meanwhile, in a rush to sacrifice long-run prosperity to resolve short term budget conflicts, many states are cutting funding to computer and engineering departments at public universities and colleges. These policies are not quite the modern day equivalent of the Ottoman Empire’s decision to ban printed books in 1515 (which lasted two centuries), but they are nearly as ludicrous in our high-tech age.

Just how large a gap in supply and demand is there? I analyzed all occupational categories for which at least half of all workers have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2010, not exactly a great year in the U.S. economy, there were seven job openings in computer occupations for every graduate from a relevant computer major. This was more than any other occupation, with the exception of occupations for which there are no relevant majors, like retail sales and the military. In high-demand metros like San Francisco and San Jose, there are 25 and 19 job openings in computers per graduate. Yet, the problem is widespread, with metros like Austin, Seattle, Washington D.C., Des Moines, Charleston, and Charlotte registering skill mismatches for computer occupations that are nearly as severe.

Other STEM fields are also being massively undersupplied. In 2010, there were six job openings for health care practitioners for every graduate and four job openings for each engineer. By contrast, there was just one job opening per graduate for art and design workers, financial specialists, counselors, and architects. For lawyers, there were 0.6 jobs per graduate, and for social science majors—my field—there were a mere 0.3 job openings for every graduate. The other problem is that—at the graduate level—more than half of computer and engineering graduates are not U.S. citizens, meaning many will put their skills to use in another country.

STEM majors also have lower unemployment rates than other college graduates. It’s not a huge difference (4.7 vs. 5.4 percent), according to the 2010 American Community Survey, but it is statistically significant. Curiously, however, computer and information science majors have unemployment rates that are no lower than other graduates. It seems computer majors with mediocre skills are no more easy to employ than typical English or Psychology majors. Communications and Art majors have somewhat higher unemployment rates, but in general, college graduates, even at the Associate’s degree level, are still much more likely to be working than those with just a high school diploma or less education.

As further evidence, the Wall Street Journal reports today that computer science majors from top programs—like Carnegie Mellon—are being lured into big and small tech companies before they even graduate. Google has launched a major recruitment effort, but even CEOs of small tech companies are meeting with talented undergrads.

In short, we have a major deficit in the supply of STEM workers. Look for new evidence of this from Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program reports to be rolled out in the next few months.  It will take a big effort at all levels of government and outside of it to re-orient towards a more science-oriented society, but that is what it will take for economic growth to continue. Either we respond to the challenge, or we accept a gradual decline in our relative standard of living, as other nations, some of which are rather unpleasant dictatorships, gain influence.