Yesterday’s Washington Post ran a piece titled, “Policymakers Hail STEM Education as a Strong Foundation, Pushing Innovation.” As I’ve warned before, reach for your Skeptic’s Hat whenever you see a politician, academic, industry-funded researcher, industry lobbyist, immigration attorney and the like use the word innovation in a STEM context.
This crowd (discreetly referred to as “policymakers, advocates and executives” in the article, to be referred to as “policymakers and allies,” PAs, below) generally has some hidden agenda lurking—expanded work visa policy, increased funding for academia and so on.
My (skeptic’s) hat is off to the Post for warning the reader of trouble, right there in the lead sentence of the piece (though sadly, not in the headline). A synopsis of the article is this imaginary conversation:
PAs: There is a natiuonal STEM labor shortage.
naysayer academics: No, just look at the numbers, e.g. the flat wages and the percentage of STEM degree holders not working in STEM.
PAs: Yes, but a knowledge of STEM is helpful in many non-STEM jobs.
One can’t argue with that second statement by the PAs. I know that my math background helps inform lots of things that I do in life that don’t seem outwardly mathematical. But the title of my post here, “Radio Shack Sales Clerk Wanted; Physics PhD Helpful,” is meant to convey the fact that the PAs’ image of STEM degree holders happily applying their background in some non-STEM profession, in an economy-boosting manner, can be highly misleading. On the contrary, the STEM-er in question may actually be quite unhappy in his/her job, and it may be an enormous waste of economic resources.
Actually, all of this is basically political rationalization on the PAs’ part. In order to explain, I’ll first give you a brief history of the shortage shouting. Later I’ll return to the issue of tragic waste of STEM resources.
The tech industry, led by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) began in 1997 by claiming a labor shortage in the computer science field, which they aimed to leverage an expansion by Congress of the yearly cap on new H-1B visas. They began the by-now time-honored theme of “the solution is more computer science education in the long term, but more H-1Bs for now.” The plan worked like a charm. President Clinton ordered the Department of Commerce to play ball with ITAA (I used to have a copy of an actual memo from him to this effect, now lost, sadly). Sure enough, DOC then produced its own report, very similar to the ITAA’s (though, interestingly, pretty much recanted by DOC a couple of years later). Congress then nearly doubled the H-1B cap in late 1998.
But the increase was temporary, and the industry wanted even more. They realized that a bigger umbrella would serve as a more powerful lobbying tool, so they broadened their claim to STEM in general. (I have the impression that it was the industry lobbyists who actually coined the STEM acronym, though I haven’t been able to confirm it.) They had no trouble selling this claim to Congress, the press, and the populace, playing the Education Card (citing international test scores in STEM, etc.).
The ploy worked for a number of years, until researchers Lindsay Lowell and Hal Salzman decided to check whether the STEM-shortage emperor was clothed; they found that he was not. None of the PAs’ claims really panned out. More recently, the authors (joined by Daniel Kuehn), did a more detailed study, again finding that shortage claim was not supported by the data, and that the H-1B program was adversely impacting wages. They found, for instance, the IT wages in 2013 were still at their 1998 level. Recently the Census Bureau added to such research by announcing that most STEM graduates are in non-STEM jobs.
And even the Microsoft-funded Tony Carnevale of Georgetown University found that the unemployment rates for new computer science and information systems grads was shockingly high (about 9% and 14%, respectively), given the tech industry’s shortage claims. As I’ve explained before, there is more to these rates than meets the eye—not everyone who has a CS degree is fit to be a programmer—but it certainly undercut the lobbyists’ claims.
What were the PAs to do? Their quest for an expanded H-1B visa program (and a fast-track green card program for foreign STEM grad students at U.S. schools) depended crucially on their claims of a STEM labor shortage. So they came up with the spin that we see in the Post article: a STEM education is helpful in non-STEM professions: In fact, if my memory is correct, it was Carnevale who first offered this explanation. The Post piece quotes university president Freeman Hrabowski, who supports H-1B expansion so strongly that he has discussed how to sell it to the American people, expressing the same view rationalizing the surplus of STEM degrees. (I’ve written elsewhere why universities are so anxious to attract foreign students. It’s much more than simply that many pay full freight.)
All this is of supreme importance. Those of you who listened to yesterday’s broadcast of the Marketplace radio show, in which DOC chief Penny Pritzker said we have a STEM labor shortage, must have wondered how she could be so poorly-informed. Had the interviewer asked her how she reconciled her statement with the studies showing the contrary, I believe that at least part of her answer would have been that many STEM graduates work in non-STEM fields.
This theme was already common in government circles as of 2011, I found at an invitation-only research conference in 2011. The attendees, about two dozen in number, included policymakers from relevant government agencies. Many of these policymakers were high-level, key people.
The contrast was interesting: Roughly speaking, the academic researchers had one point of view, that of being skeptical of a STEM labor shortage, while the government policymakers generally took the opposite position, that either we had a shortage or if not, then having a surplus was beneficial anyway. I’d been researching the H-1B issue since 1993, and have been a political junkie since age 12, if not earlier. But even I was not prepared for the stark difference between the two groups. I was particularly struck by the comment of one of the attendees, who when challenged about his claim of a STEM shortage, frankly replied that he must implement what comes from “the top,” meaning the President.
(I urge you to read my report on the conference. Some readers of this blog were present; if any of you saw things differently, please let me know, and I will post your comments here, anonymously. I believe that my report is consistent with the official report.)
The attendees from government had already coined a new (somewhat Orwellian) term, diversion, for the STEM people in non-STEM jobs, and were trying to spin diversion as a good thing. Quite a bit of the discussion was on this topic.
One government analyst, for instance, pointed to molecular biology PhDs now working on Wall Street, covering the biotech industry for investment firms. The fact that this was a questionable return to the huge government and other investment in the education of these scientists didn’t bother him.
Another government researcher in attendance, a young woman not far out of her own engineering PhD work, claimed that many people with STEM PhDs really DON’T WANT to work in STEM. Though I have no doubt she was sincere about her own case—I got the impression that she had pursued a PhD largely due to parental pressure—I don’t think her claim is generally true. Most people don’t go through the huge time commitments, expense and opportunity costs of a PhD program unless they find their field to be captivating. I submit that most “diversion” is involuntary (and that most of the “diverted” don’t even have a Wall Street salary to ease their sorrows and frustration).
In short, the “diversion” concept, and the STEM-helps-you-help-Radio-Shack notion, are rationalizations, formed to excuse what the PAs want: expansion of the H-1B and green card programs, as we saw with Sec. Pritzker.
So there is indeed a human toll to having a STEM surplus, and as mentioned, a terrible waste of precious resources.