College Guide


February 14, 2012 6:15 PM Do We Really Have a Scientist Shortage?

By Daniel Luzer


It’s a fundamental starting point for much of education reform. This country’s schools are bad, and education is in trouble, it part because they’re not producing enough students prepared for careers in sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

But America might very well have plenty of STEM specialists already. So many, in fact, that the job prospects for STEM graduates are actually pretty dismal. Perhaps that’s the point.

In 2007 Barack Obama said:

In this kind of economy, countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Already, China is graduating eight times as many engineers as we are. By twelfth grade, our children score lower on math and science tests than most other kids in the world.

There’s a crisis, right? We need colleges to produce “10,000 more engineers a year.” As Richard Stephens of Boeing said to the House Science and Technology Committee in February, 2010:

Our industry needs more innovative young scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians to replace our disproportionately large (compared to the total U.S. workforce) population of Baby Boomers as they retire. At the same time that retirements are increasing, the number of American workers with STEM degrees is declining, as the National Science Board pointed out in 2008. This skills shortage is a global concern across the board in all high-tech sectors—public as well as private.

Maybe not. According to a piece by Beryl Lieff Benderly in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, critics may have vastly overstated the real need for STEM experts. As Benderly writes:

Leading experts on the STEM workforce, have said for years that the US produces ample numbers of excellent science students. In fact, according to the National Science Board’s authoritative publication Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the country turns out three times as many STEM degrees as the economy can absorb into jobs related to their majors.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having too many scientists, right? Scientific minds can invent wonderful things and fuel economic progress. Why would some experts, like the gentleman from Boeing, overstate the need for scientists? Well the more STEM professionals are out there, the cheaper they get. More STEM people means companies don’t have to pay them much.

So what’s really going on here might not be that we have too few scientists and engineers but that we have too many. According to Benderly, however, this isn’t an accident; it’s policy.

Simply put, a desire for cheap, skilled labor, within the business world and academia, has fueled assertions—based on flimsy and distorted evidence—that American students lack the interest and ability to pursue careers in science and engineering, and has spurred policies that have flooded the market with foreign STEM workers. This has created a grim reality for the scientific and technical labor force: glutted job markets; few career jobs; low pay, long hours, and dismal job prospects for postdoctoral researchers in university labs; near indentured servitude for holders of temporary work visas.

It’s not that America’s science and engineering firms don’t have enough applicants. They have plenty. They just want to ensure a steady oversupply of trained STEM professionals so they can continue to employ them cheaply.

Of course that makes a lot of sense for such firms, but let’s be careful about using a few companies’ human resource desires to formulate national education policy. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Anonymous on February 14, 2012 11:01 PM:

    i dont disagree but something like 40% of STEM phD holders in America are foreigners, and immigrants won't be coming to america in the future as more and more countries will offer them education and employment opportunities.
    Meanwhile, current American kids do poorly in math and science compared to other industrial countries.

    America is doing perfectly fine as it is now, but we shouldn't take that for granted.

  • Snarki, child of Loki on February 16, 2012 8:14 AM:

    is it 40% of "current STEM PhDs resident in the US?" or "40% of STEM students graduating with a PhD"? (I *think* it's the latter) In any case, PhD's aren't the main problem.

    The problem in the US is that the "basic level" of STEM education (STEM subjects for non-majors) is weak. At the same time, advanced STEM education in the US is very strong, it's one area where the US is very competitive on the world stage.

    INS has a policy of pushing students that graduate back to their home countries; many (most?) would prefer to stay. So if we really have a shortage of STEM PhDs, it doesn't take years and years to fix, just modify the green-card rules a bit.

    Certainly Boeing has an incentive to pump up their supply of cheap labor. But for the sake of argument, suppose you could influence the major of 100 students per year: would the US be better off if those students were STEM or Marketing majors?

    The best choice for the country might not be the best choice for the individual student.

  • Irv F on February 16, 2012 11:30 PM:

    Regardless of any current supply/demand imbalance, there is a glut scientists/engineers about to hit the market. The Obama budget axes defense research funding beyond the most pessimistic worse-case scenario. We will be laying off more research talent than the number of working scientists in most other countries. Many of us (including myself) are scoping out the next-best nation to utilize the knowledge that has taken tens of years of experience and multi-million dollars of funding to train each of us.

    The US maintained world order for as long as it led the technology race. The world is about to become a much more dangerous place, including the US where we've chosen to abandon effective defense technology to appease supposed deficit-hawks. If 'Providing for the Common Defense' is downgraded to just another wasteful government program - an enemy of the taxpayer - America will soon experience how defense without scientists works out.

    I will be heartbroken to see Western Civilization's crowning achievement slide towards oblivion, as I read about it on the other side of the international dateline where my expensively trained defense science skills are used to combat disease and global warming. I'll wish I could be debating the next important developments in Western Civilization at the dinner table with my children, but they will be in other regions using their US college Engineering/Cantonese training in different parts of Asia where jobs exist.

    I will not be feeling sorry for myself and my family. We will have benefited from the cold-war education programs (2012-2013 discontinued) that allowed us to become the very best experts in the world.

    The vast majority of Americans will fare dramatically worse. They will not raise the same employment interest as an anti-gravity engineer in Iran, China, India or North Korea. (Almost) All Americans will not sell out to regimes hostile to the spectacular high point of Western Civ. in recorded history. But, all will mourn the stupidity of short-sighted decisions that squandered the talents of those who truly have been the 'best and brightest' of our generation and wonder how the 'best' leaders of our times produced the worst possible policies of Human Development.

  • toowearyforoutrage on February 17, 2012 12:38 PM:

    To help fit supply and demand, one of the most sensible approaches (that our plutocratic government will never pass) is allow H1-B visa foreign STEM grads to be hired by ANY company.

    Let them offer services to the highest bidder rather than get stuck with the sponsoring company. If no American with the vital skill-set is available, companies can pay to import one (or train one). If they're just trying to lower their wage costs, it won't work because a company paying market wages will snatch that immigrant away,

    A STEM education equips people with analytical skills that apply to almost ANYTHING (says a Biology major who found better money in the IT field.) Good thinkers can prosper almost anywhere.

  • bigtuna on February 23, 2012 4:18 PM:

    I dunno ... I don't know the stats that Benderly is using, but in the world I run in, there is 0% unemployment in certain fields of sciences and engineering, with jobs at all levels - BS, MS, and Phd., with people with degrees outside of the field being hired in. There is a shortage of people willing to work in many disciplines of engineering, geology, geophysics, and there is a shortage of people willing to live, or travel, and do these jobs, outside of Denver, Houston, etc. I can quit my professor job and triple my salary in one minute if I chose to, and chose to live in Wyoming, Montana, or Nevada.... wait a minute .. why am I here??

  • POed Lib on February 23, 2012 10:43 PM:

    We do not have a shortage of any scientific field. We have a huge oversupply in most. In biology, most persons do one, sometimes 2 postdocs. We do not need more foreign workers. What we do need is less cheating from Chinese applicants, and honest TOEFL scores. There is HUGE cheating in China, India, and many other countries, where many "preparation" agencies get paid thousands of dollars to prepare applications, most of which are faked. What we get is incompetent Chinese and Indians, and people who cannot speak English for shit. I have at this point an advanced degree in the vast number of ways that Indians and Chinese mangle English. In addition, there are now so many Chinese and Indians that they all work together, and the English stays crappy.

    What we need is honesty in graduate admissions. In the last 20 years, many graduate programs have gone from majority American to majority Chinese. There is huge cheating going on in admissions. Americans have not gone from intelligent to stupid in 20 years.

  • POed Lib on February 23, 2012 10:53 PM:

    What most of you know about education, testing, or the STEM professions, from your comments, can be safely put into a 1 ML pipette, with plenty of extra room.

    1) The US tests everyone, most countries strongly track. Statistics based on averages are moronic. That's a good description of the knowledge of most of you.

    2) Reliable statistics by non-whore organizations, like the Urban Institute, indicate that we have a huge oversupply of STEM grads. There are a huge number of players who want cheap labor (immigration whoretoneys whose livelihood is based on selling American workers down the river, software companies that want cheap labor to drive down prices), but very few who advocate for fewer immigrants and for American students. We need jobs for our children.

    3) The US representation in Nobel prizes in the sciences is far in excess of our population. And that does not include foreign scientists working here.

    During the Great Depression, immigration was reduced by 90 % by the Roosevelt administration. They understood that the main responsibility of the US government is to OUR CITIZENS.

    And the treasonous suggestion that US innovation is insufficient is again moronically ignorant. Having employed (to my sorrow) plenty of Chinese and Indians in the past, I routinely find that US IT staff are far more innovative, far more ready to take the initiative, and far more able than Chinese/Indians. The Chinese and Indian school systems suck, and they are trying to emulate ours.

    "Shortage shouting" is done by those who have a vested interest in the cheap labor supplied by an endless stream of H-1B incompetents, most of which are far less innovative than US IT and STEM talent.

    One final point: The H-1B, the primary vehicle for foreign temporary labor, IS NOT AN IMMIGRATION VISA. It is a temporary work visa.

  • POed Lib on February 23, 2012 11:11 PM:

    What the H-1B is doing is destroying the US IT sector. US students enrolled in IT programs has dropped dramatically. As H-1Bs are brought in, the bad publicity has, more and more, destroyed interest in these programs in US students.

    Note that the H-1B has only existed since the 1990s. Prior to that, the US and US innovation invented the IT industry from top to bottom.

    Rather than believing the garbage served up by the proponents of cheap labor, progressives should wonder WHY large corporations are manipulating the labor market? The answer is that cheap labor is always an objective.

  • Still A Chemist on August 01, 2012 1:48 PM:

    I came to the USA to get my PhD in a top private University 20 years ago and ended up becoming a naturalized US citizen. So, I have plenty of personal experience in this matter plus I know the experience of many of my colleagues.

    I also taught in a big public PhD- granting University, and I can say within the same graduate program, the difference in IQ (am I still allowed to use this term these days?) between native and foreign students is only about 6+/-2 points (I'll let you figure out which way or you can look up the statistics on GRE Gen. Ap. scores). What is more interesting though, is that I came across many dozens of very bright American-born undergraduates (from my classes) and hardly any of them pursued a graduate degree in STEM. Most went to medical schools, some MBA, dental and even Law schools (some of my friends from grad school also became patent lawyers).

    Why? As one of undergraduate who worked in my lab (and ended up in a Med school) said: science jobs suck. I guess he knows it from his parents who are from India and both got their PhD in the US. Low pay (compare to MD or even OD), no job security (for his parents it was an endless reincarnation of startups that do not offer provisions against stock dilution to their regular employees, i.e. even if a startup succeeded these people would have ended up with $2000 worth of stock), 10 days of vacations per year (and they could not take unpaid vacation time).

    Do you still have questions? Yes - how to fix this? Free market has been the best solution in many cases and I believe it has a solution to this problem. toowearyforoutrage on Fri 17 Feb 2012 12:38 PM wrote: (see above)
    To help fit supply and demand, one of the most sensible approaches (that our plutocratic government will never pass) is allow H1-B visa foreign STEM grads to be hired by ANY company. Let them offer services to the highest bidder rather than get stuck with the sponsoring company. If no American with the vital skill-set is available, companies can pay to import one (or train one). If they're just trying to lower their wage costs, it won't work because a company paying market wages will snatch that immigrant away.

  • Pat on November 23, 2012 9:46 AM:

    When "engineering the sciences" occurred in the 1800-1900's, most scientists had to do their own checking, measuring, and construction of component parts. That is definitely no longer true, must as it is for lawyers who no longer construct their own work.

    It's probable that the best engineering ideas come not from mathemeticians (who are confined to the mathematical process) but the non-mathemeticians who engineer ideas like those of Bill Gates, or accidential scientists who stumble across inspirations and innovations while trying to do something else.

    What causes the failure to produce engineers and scientists is not mathematical per se but the limitations of scope defined for what passes as engineering as necessarily including high level mathematics rather than the problem solving of engineering that is the underlying motive of engineers using that math to solve the problems.

    If anything there are too many mathemmatics qualifications in engineering to motivate students to study the field, not the math, of engineering.

    That may have been great for 18th Century engineers who wanted to streamline the field and fix their elitism in it, but it doesn't work to produce the number of would-be engineers who are deterred because of the math. They often become lawyers and engineer all manner of faulty designs that serve their purse, not the public.

    Curriculum design meant to deter potential engineers has always been the problem because of the presumed technical qualifications that are ministerial in nature, not scientific in nature. Computational engineers might be considered a necessary and highly paid component of the engineering field designed for engineering excellence and sustainability, not a barrier to entry.

  • Anonymous on December 05, 2012 9:09 AM:

    IrvF sounds all "aflutter" because the Obama administration wants to "cut defense." Ergo, many of those DOD PhDs in science and engineering will go bye bye--apparently of which he is one). Gee, IrvF opines, how can we lose all that scientific talent when the world is "out gunning" us in math and science, and we live in such a "dangerous" world?

    I'll tell you why. It's just not the Obama administration that wants to cut defense, it's the American public. We're tired of invading and occupying countries for over a decade and spending trillions of dollars doing it, with little geo-political payoff to show for it.

    The current DOD crop of scientists and engineers is nearing retirement anyway and have served the country well. Time to step aside and readjust to a smaller role that will require many fewer bombs and missiles and silly things like "Star Wars" research--and smaller but more efficient tools used by the intelligence agencies for desired results.

    Whatever happened to the peace dividend? Are we still fighting the Russians? No. The peace dividend is finally arriving--a decade late. Peace with a small 'p'.

    The Sage of Wake Forest

  • David on December 18, 2012 7:14 PM:

    I find the premise of this article to be spot on, from firsthand experience.

    The corporatization of science has led to a drive to cut costs to the bone (and beyond) by replacing talented older scientists with cheaper new graduates, regardless of the loss of experience and talent that entails. Once you've been discarded, your chances of resuming a scientific career are extremely slim. I have a PhD from Duke and was on the research staff at MIT. Companies I have worked for have made over half a billion dollars from my inventions, yet I have now been unemployed for over a year, and am most likely going to have to abandon my scientific career. I worked 60 hour weeks in the lab for decades, only to be jettisoned after training replacements half my age and with a tiny fraction of my knowledge and experience. My last employer told me they wanted me to train the new employees so more people would be able to do my kind of work and I wouldn't have such a heavy workload. What they did not say is that they meant to reduce my workload to zero after these people were trained, which is exactly what they did. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a STEM career in America today. Work your ass off so some rich jerk can get richer, and then get dumped in your 50's.

    Based on my experience, I cannot in good conscience recommend a career in science. If you are in industry, you will work for people who do not understand or value what you do, and you will eventually be treated like a pawn in some business person's personal chess game. If you are in academe, you will be forced to beg for money to support your research, and will end up compromising your vision to get funding, if you can get it at all. If you have really advanced ideas, people will not fund it because they don't grasp it. When you get older, nobody will want you because you cost more than someone who just got out of grad school.

    Have a nice day!

  • Alvin Steinberg on January 08, 2013 10:47 AM:

    The United States can prepare a lot of science and engineering students who don't have all the highschool math courses by having universities give crash summer 2 month calculus math preparation courses before entering college to make up for the lack of highschool preperation.