Radio Shack Sales Clerk Wanted; Physics PhD Helpful

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.


13 thoughts on “Radio Shack Sales Clerk Wanted; Physics PhD Helpful

  1. There is another group that nobody seems to be talking about that is being totally destroyed.
    Many of us, age 56, give or take, bought heathkit’s, trs-80s,etc back in the late 70’s, and we subscribed to byte, pc mag, etc., and hand keyed in all of those programs, and taught ourselves programming.and we were very good at it.

    We never cared for the degree because we had seen too many with degrees that couldn’t do the job as they had no experience.

    Bottom line, all of us, degreed, or not, have people, even if it is only ourselves, depending on us to bring home the bacon and now that these people with money, and those wanting money are making it impossible for us to do that leaving us with only one option that I don’t want to consider, because trust me, the lower paying jobs are also telling us that “I can’t hire you because you’ve made too much money in the past and you won’t stay when times get better”


  2. @matloff: ‘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.’

    I suspect that listeners on your stream (list, blog, etc) no longer much entertain the hypothesis that the PAs on this set of issues (I’ll call them STEMFF–“STEM’s False Friends”) are misinformed. The information you et al present must better supports the inference[1] that STEMFF are misinformers, knowingly selling false but profitable premises. In their communicational and political dynamics, I assert STEMFF are best modeled like mid-20th-century tobacco merchants (after ~1920 but pre-1964): seeking to manufacture consent[2] for the externalization of costs (e.g., to the US labor market) of practices from which they profit. Currently, STEMFF know both that

    1. what they’re selling (notably, mass importation of STEM students and workers) is harmful is toxic (in this case, bad for “the 99%”[3]).

    2. the public mostly does *not* know that what the STEMFF are selling is harmful.

    Hence, STEMFF remain in phase 1 (disinformation) of what I hope is a 4-phase process. As public knowledge grows, STEMFF (like their tobacco-selling ancestors) will move to phase 2, denial[4]. As their denial is overcome, STEMFF will increasingly lawyer-up and lobby-up, transitioning to phase 3, bunkering[5]. We can then force STEMFF into a phase-4 defeat, in which their policy prescriptions are given the same disdain by reasonable persons as that generally accorded to tobacco advertising today.

    We–STEM’s true friends–must make our 1964, a “Surgeon General’s warning[6] moment.” You are certainly doing your part.

    [4]: For tobacco, climate, et al, see
    [5]: À la


  3. The Post ran an editorial a week ago criticizing the Census Bureau report that said only a quarter of STEM graduates have STEM jobs.

    While there are some reasonable points to be made on this subject, I don’t think the Post did a great job at it. For example:

    ‘Agriculture doesn’t qualify as a STEM industry to the Census Bureau, but many farmers rely on genetic modification of crops.’

    They want us to count farmers as STEM workers because they might be planting GMO seeds? That’s a stretch.

    It looks like the Post will be pushing this theme of diversion, and the great usefulness of STEM in other areas.

    I’m not encouraged by the publisher they just hired, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., a Washington political [Reagan] insider, and the founding chief executive of Politico. Politico seems closely attuned to K Street thinking, and pushes immigration even more than the traditional media.


  4. This is very interesting. The quick review reminds me that my including too much information, quoting or citing too many studies, clutters things and fogs minds rather than the desired clarifying and persuasion.

    Of course, a few farmers do have PhDs in ag economics or “plant science” and such, more all the time what with continuing hyper-credentialism, “craft farms” and such. Professors in these fields have PhDs. Veterinarians who specialize in farm animals are much more STEMmish than the average farmer. This shows that details matter when trying to sort occupations and industries out, and big umbrella studies can hide a lot of important details, leading to deceptive results.

    I was also intrigued to see mention of “Frederick J. Ryan Jr., a Washington political [Reagan] insider”, when, just yesterday, I ran across an article from Reaganites criticizing Ryan’s take-over of the Reagan Library board and being presented as a “conservative” WRT his left-leaning Politico and now WaPo appointment… when his role in the Reagan admin was minor and having shown little in the way of Reaganite tendencies since:

    Positions on STEM jobs market issues do not neatly cluster along party lines.


    • Frederick Ryan’s strength was considered to be his close ties to Nancy Reagan. Politico seems to me K Street liberal establishment.

      Here’s an example of science in farming. Maybe the Post will want to use it in their next editorial on the benefits of more STEM immigration. Unfortunately China is known for this kind of exploitation.

      ‘Zhang Weiqiang, of Manhattan, Kan., a rice breeder for Ventria Bioscience, a Colorado-based biopharmaceutical company, and Yan Wengui, of Stuttgart, Ark., a research geneticist for the federal Agriculture Department, are accused of giving proprietary rice seeds that contained medicinal qualities to crop researchers in their native China.

      In 2012, Mr. Zhang, 47, a permanent resident, and Mr. Yan, 63, a naturalized citizen, both made trips to China, where the authorities said they discussed research they had performed in the United States with Chinese scientists. The men then arranged for a group from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science and the Crop Research Institute in China to travel to the United States last year. They brought the group to the Ventria facility in Kansas where Mr. Zhang worked and to his home, and to the federal agriculture facility in Arkansas where Mr. Yan worked.

      The proprietary rice seeds were found in the luggage of members of the Chinese delegation as they tried to leave the country, according to the indictment, and at the home of Mr. Zhang, who, along with Mr. Yan, was arrested in December.’


  5. Just posted this to a NYT column of leading globalist and H1-B advocate Tom Friedman, who fellow NYT writer Mark Leibovich mocks as the ‘supreme Thought Leader’ in his book ‘This Town,’ which I really like, inside baseball on the Washington crowd.

    ‘Employers used to take generalists and train them into specialists for their industry. But fewer employers want to do that today or can afford to in a globally competitive economy, especially when they fear they’ll train someone who will then leave for a competitor.’

    That’s the main reason they prefer to hire H1-Bs – because they are handcuffed to one employer, and must toe the line, while they wait 6 years to get their green card. You forgot to tell us that your whiz-bang global economy of the future is actually based on de facto indentured servitude.

    And when you praised the entrepreneurship of H1-Bs you forgot to tell us about this:

    ‘Even the strongly pro-H-1B Berkeley professor AnnaLee Saxenian found that more than 80% of the Indian and Chinese engineers in Silicon Valley share technological information with firms in their home countries, with over half investing in tech back home.’

    So their entrepreneurship is directed at moving American technology and jobs to their low wage countries, which is the real main purpose of H1-B.

    But the topper is that you are now the mentor of parents desperately seeking a job for their new grads. Having destroyed their kids’ prospects by advocating H1-B for decades, you now hold seminars about how they might find an unconventional job at Google [fat chance!] I nominate you for my Globalization Monetization award!


  6. I just got around to reading this blog entry, Norm.

    I note the mention of Penny Pritzker, the current Secretary of Commerce. Is she one of us “ordinary people”?

    Does anyone think she gives a rip about U.S. STEM workers? I say NO!

    Some fun facts from her wikipedia page:

    – She was national co-chair of Obama for America 2012 and was the national finance chair of President
    Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. A campaign under her direction reached out to small donors.

    – In 2012, Chicago magazine named her one of the 100 most powerful Chicagoans.

    – In 2011, the Forbes 400 list of America’s wealthiest showed her as the 263rd richest person in the U.S., estimated net worth of US $1.8511 billion, and the world’s 651st richest person.

    – In 2009, Forbes named Pritzker as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

    – In 1989, Ms. Pritzker’s late uncle, Jay Pritzker, purchased a 50% stake in Hinsdale, Illinois-based Superior Bank of Chicago from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which had taken over the bank when it failed. Penny Pritzker was Superior’s chairperson from 1991–1994. In 1993, the bank “embarked on a business strategy of significant growth into subprime home mortgages,” according to a report by the United States Treasury Department. In 2000, it became clear the bank was faltering. In the months leading up to 2001, the Pritzkers tried to work out a recapitalization plan.[13] In July 2001, FDIC seized the bank after the recapitalization could not be resolved.Subsequently, the Pritzker family reached an agreement with regulators to pay $460 million.


  7. Dr. Norm Matloff,

    Thank you for your work on this topic of USian STEM professional employment, and the abuse of the H1-B.

    Are you aware of any study/analysis (especially “reproducible analysis” style analysis with R/Python/etc code) that shows where the ~50% of engineering/comp sci/math/stat & ~75% of other STEM fields including life science are “diverted” to? In particular, for each field, say those with their BS degree in CS

    1. those diverted into a FT non-STEM job which has a higher/equal pay than the CS-related STEM job (such as ~$93K median pay of for the software developer occupation, such as a physician, patent lawyer, financial analyst, etc.

    2. those diverted into a FT non-STEM job which has a lower pay than the CS-related STEM job, but does require a college degree, such as High School (CS or generalist) teacher, or generic manager of a retail store that requires (perhaps credential inflation) as BS in say ANY STEM or Business field, not specifically CS, etc.

    3. those diverted into a FT non-STEM job that does NOT require a BS degree whatsoever (e.g. Type 1 Undermployment ), such as a taxi driver, retail clerk, call center operator, etc.

    4. those diverted into an involuntarily PT job, e.g. same as #3, but in addition also experiencing Type 2 Underemployment (desiring 40 hrs but only getting say 24 hrs, etc). This would also the PT Contractor “Sharing economy” exploited workers by companies like Uber or freelancer Odesk.

    I would state that said STEM degreed worker would only find “diversion” beneficial to them, possibly in case #1, not #2-4. Even in case #1, if the new non-STEM occupation is similar to the involuntary STEM occupation in its insecurity & subject to age discrimination/offshore outsourcing/etc like financial analyst, the worker could face ANOTHER involuntary career change that kicks them into #2-4. It seems there are few remaining US occupations, like physician or lawyer (by working in an “underserved” poor rural or urban area) where once can reasonably expect to at worst, be able to work in a self-employed basis as a FT job that pays at least $50K (e.g. public defender lawyer?) until age 65.

    I would guesstimate that of the 50-75% that are diverted to non-STEM, at most 10% are of the fortunate case #1, & the vast majority are of the unfortunate #2-4. I would guess that the majority are NOT satisfied with their “diversion”, especially if they generated student loan debt.

    Matloff’s highlighting of is interesting and scary, an actual genius & biologist, who was involuntary evicted from his biologist job into #3, working as an auto dealer’s taxi driver-type, ~$8/hr type job. I wish the glib, Just World-believing, spontaneously unrigged fair free market-believing, “it’s your own fault, upgrade ur mad skillz”, anti-social insurance types should suffer what happened to Dr. Prasher, as they certainly have less skills, intellect, & work ethic (with perhaps a literal handful of exceptions, given the rarity of true genius) of Dr. Prasher. I would include most of the political (Obama/Bush/etc) & business power elite (JP Morgan-bankrupting Jamie Dimon, HP destroying Carly Fiorina/etc) as part of this arrogant glib faction that are most likely of far lower intelligence than Dr. Prasher. However, this arrogant glib faction are good at “social capital acquisition”, and Machiavellian sociopathic power acquisition.

    Thanks again Dr. Matloff.


    • I am not aware of studies that show what the “diverted” people go into. You might ask Tony Carnevale at Georgetown University about that.

      Also, life is more than just money. What if Prasher had become a highly-paid lawyer? Would he be happy? Would the nation not have had a loss of his talent? I think the answer is No in both cases.


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