Complaints about a lack of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent in the U.S. and elsewhere are legion and perennial. But although claims of STEM shortages are a staple of politicians and business executives, they by no means represent a consensus view. Contradicting voices point to a number of facts that belie such claims, suggesting instead that far from a dearth, STEM fields have a glut of candidates.
An issue like this one should be easily resolvable: simply look at the numbers of job openings, then compare them with the numbers of qualified available candidates to see which is larger. But such an approach fails to satisfy both sides. If one is to assume that both sides (excluding politicians, perhaps) are being reasonably honest, then the problem may not be so much disagreement over whether a STEM shortage exists, but misunderstanding about how each side is defining its terms and assessing its needs.
So, is there a STEM shortage? Yes and no. And here’s why.
STEM: Supply and Demand
The strongest argument against a broad STEM shortage is the fundamental economic principle of supply and demand. When the supply of a particular product falls (assuming constant demand), the price of that product goes up. OPEC, for instance, understands quite well that all things being equal, it can control the price of oil by simply controlling how much its member countries produce.
According to Business Insider, citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau, salaries for employees in software publishing, semiconductors, computer programming and computer system design remained largely flat between 2002 and 2010 (following upswings during the dot-com boom). In other words, if there is a STEM shortage, then the normal rules of economics don’t apply.
But a number of complicating factors mean that assessing the situation purely from a salary perspective may be inadequate. First, STEM may in fact be too broad a category. Science, depending on how it is defined, could encompass a wide range of fields that may or may not intuitively belong to the typical perception of STEM. Also, an acute shortage of professionals in a narrow area could easily (although not justifiably) be magnified into a supposed shortage of STEM professionals in general.
Even granting the ambiguity of the STEM category and uncertainty as to whether actual shortages in highly specialized areas justify claiming STEM shortages in general, however, the argument from supply and demand still stands—assuming the details of the so-called shortage are clearly defined. Consider, for instance, the case of farming. A typical farming job is labor intensive and requires little in the way of specialized skills. A farmer might claim to have a labor shortage despite high unemployment in the economy and despite the fact that almost any able-bodied individual can do farm labor. The problem is that the profitability (or, rather, the lack thereof) in farming is so slim that the wages do not attract workers: the employer simply cannot afford to pay higher wages to attract the labor needed to do the work. Thus, the farmer claims a labor shortage.
The situation for STEM could be analogous, although this argument is difficult to make in the face of corporate profits reaching all-time highs. The other critical factor is skill: the specialization required for each particular STEM field means labor costs are not the only consideration. Business Insider summarizes the actual situation: “What we really have is a ‘STEM majors who have the skills that Silicon Valley needs, who are willing to work for a price Silicon Valley wants to pay’ shortage.” And that situation leads to calls for more immigration visas (H-1B), which allows companies to import talent to work for lower wages and, often, under less favorable conditions. For instance, terminating a sponsorship is easier than firing a domestic worker, and companies in an industry may be reluctant (possibly owing to mutual agreements) to poach foreign professionals, making them safer investments.
Technological Progress Becoming More Difficult
In a sense, there is indeed a STEM shortage—but this shortage may only be in the same sense that there is a shortage of affordable Ferraris. Harboring the desire to get everything you want at a price you dictate is a recipe for a “shortage.” Part of the problem may be that progress in science and technology is becoming much harder. Largely gone are the days when an individual can make any major contribution to research or technology apart from expensive funding by a government or, to a lesser extent, a company. Theoretical physics—excluding areas that are so immersed in mathematics that they bear little or no relation to reality—involves multi-billion-dollar instruments that only governments can afford. On the technology side, the approaching end of Moore’s Law is evident in the increasingly difficult (and expensive) steps toward smaller and faster processors. (How many silicon fabs can you name? Intel doesn’t count.)
As a result, the specialization and innate talent required to make a meaningful contribution in many fields means that indeed, the outlook for Silicon Valley companies seeking an army of Albert Einsteins is grim at best.
Apart from the fact that the U.S. education system—particularly K–12 but increasingly at higher levels—is a colossal failure, other societal factors are at work. A growing disinterest in STEM fields among students may reflect overexposure to technology: given that most people already have their faces glued to computer screens of one form or another, offering them a future of eight-plus hours per day looking at computer screens at the behest of a boss may be less than appealing. Furthermore (an autobiographical detail), some STEM candidates may be turned off by the meaningless grind of a STEM job, which can involve mostly telling a computer to work on a problem whose details are so narrow that they have little recognizable relation to any practical outcome.
There is a STEM shortage. There is no STEM shortage. Both statements are true, depending on how the term is defined. Companies want STEM talent that meets their high requirements but doesn’t incur costs that are “too high”—including costs to refine raw talent. As for actual presence of enough individuals with STEM backgrounds, any notion of a shortage is fiction. What is absent is the STEM equivalent of cheap Ferraris: highly skilled, innovative individuals who will work at wages dictated by companies. Foreign professionals often fit this bill—usually for reasons having to do with H-1B rules rather than a free market.
Society—including business and government—must also come to terms with the fact that advancements in science and technology become more difficult and more costly. They eventually reach the point of economic infeasibility, which may be the fate of Moore’s Law. But holding down labor costs to enable just a little more progress only works so long.
The debate over a shortage, or lack thereof, in STEM talent will continue, but some clarity in defining what exactly is in short supply (labor, or cheap high-skill labor) can help lead to a resolution. In the meantime, however, companies will continue to claim a shortage as long as it increases the labor supply (pushing down costs) and encourages politicians to, for instance, expand the H-1B visa program.
Image courtesy of Marcin Wichary