A Disappointing Paper on the Question of Possible STEM Shortages

One wonders how a new paper, “STEM crisis or STEM surplus? Yes and yes,” in this month’s issue of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Monthly Labor Review, was deemed to have met the high standards of that publication. It consists of little more than a small amount of data, an unfulfilled promise of a sophisticated model, a few interviews of some probably biased sources, and the random musings of the authors. Even the authors’ theme, as summarized in the paper’s title — that there is much diversity among the STEM fields and thus the very question of whether there a shortage in “STEM” — is hardly new.

In addition, in my opinion the authors have not been completely forthcoming about their possible lack of impartiality in this research. In particular, the first author, Yi Xue, describes herself as a “former MIT grad student,” which though correct, fails to disclose that she works for Palantir, a firm that has hired a number of H-1Bs in the area of Big Data — a field that the paper claims as having a shortage. Indeed, from the spelling of her name in China’s pinyin system, and her LinkedIn page, she appears to be of either Chinese or Canadian citizenship, and thus a foreign worker herself. This would color her views, not necessarily in terms of overt employer-related bias, but also in terms of limited viewpoint: Many foreign tech workers see so many people like themselves being hired that they falsely assume that no Americans are available for those jobs.

My interest in the paper stems (no pun intended) from the authors’ repeated claim that though some STEM fields don’t have shortages, there is definitely a shortage in the software development area. More on this shortly.

The authors begin with a rather promising statement:

Although many studies have examined the science and engineering workforce in the aggregate, little analysis has been aimed at identifying specific areas of STEM worker shortage or surplus. Using a “taxicab queuing model” as a framing metaphor, this article examines the heterogeneous nature of STEM occupations by studying distinct STEM disciplines and employment sectors on the basis of current literature and statistical data, as well as anecdotal evidence from newspapers.

(The second author is a specialist in queuing theory.) But actually the authors don’t use that taxicab model in their paper at all! The hapless reader must wait until the Conclusion section at the end of the paper to learn that the authors finally admit that they never did use that taxicab model (or any other, for that matter). This reason alone should have been enough for the journal to reject the paper, or at least to insist that the authors not make such a misleading claim at the outset of the paper.

The authors’ primary source is interviews with recruiters. They concede that their sample size there was small (18), but that is not the real problem. Instead, the issue is that the authors don’t realize that when a recruiter tells them that he/she has trouble finding software developers, the authors don’t know the unspoken restrictions that are controlling the recruiter’s search. As I’ve mentioned, a big issue is age; the recruiter knows that the given job is open only to young programmers, either new grads or up to 5-10 years out of school, and thus his/her statement “I can’t find enough programmers” really means, “I can’t find enough YOUNG programmers.” Or worse, the recruiter knows that the employer wants “loyal” workers who won’t jump ship to another company, a euphemism for foreign. The authors of this paper aren’t aware of these dynamics.

The only quantitative support the authors offer for their claim of a programmer shortage is indirect, pointing out for example that programmer salaries are higher in states with big tech industries, such as CA, WA and TX. Fine, but there are lots of confounding factors there. The authors also cite a much-criticized job ads study by a think tank funded by the industry.

The biggest problem with this paper is that the authors ignore “the elephant in the room” — wages in the IT field aren’t rising. They cite the Salzman/Kuehn/Lowell paper, but ignore the latter’s finding that IT wages have been flat. You don’t have to be an economist to understand the basic principle:  Flat wages means no shortage, period. Had the authors done their homework, they would have found that if anything, IT wages are declining. (See my January 23 blog post, “New CS Grads’ Wages Down 9%.”)

As someone who has often taught queuing theory, I look forward to seeing future work by the authors using their taxicab model. But I hope they do their homework this time.

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17 thoughts on “A Disappointing Paper on the Question of Possible STEM Shortages

  1. @matloff: [the recruiter’s] statement “I can’t find enough programmers” really means, “I can’t find enough YOUNG programmers.”

    or young CHEAP programmers–no more hiring bonuses for *you*, kiddo!

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  2. “Disappointing” is diplomatic.

    >Depending on the definition, the size of the STEM workforce can range from 5 percent to 20 percent
    >of all U.S. workers.

    WHAT? I admit I don’t have a number handy, but I would have thought it less than 1 percent, even counting Geek Squad and help desk type jobs as “STEM”.

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        • So, folks, what good is a degree if a person can do the job?
          I do not share the snobbishness on “you must have a degree.”

          I believe in the person that can do the job, no matter the circumstances of their birth.

          Don’t get me wrong.
          Going to college is good because it exposes you to different cultures, different schools of thoughts.

          But so does going into the military where you are held accountable for your actions.

          Some, actually most of our biggest corporations throughout history were founded by people with a purpose and no degree.

          Bill Gates himself did not have a degree and recently google admitted that a degree is no guarantee of anything.

          Yet now we determine a person’s worth by a degree?
          While at the same time displacing people with degrees with people from other countries who may or may not have bought their degree from the local degree shop.

          That is the environment we live in, which is why I will take the person that can do over the person with a degree any day of the week and believe me, I believe all of us need to go to college or into the military so that we can broaden our horizons, but if I ever manage a corporation and find out that people that can do are being passed over in favor of those with degrees that cannot do, I will personally escort the person making that decision out the door and hand them their finaly check.

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  3. Not only is this inappropriate, what it involves is promoting the business interests of the first author in a deceptive manner. That person (she? he?) has been working in “Business development” for Palantir for at least a year. This is not disclosed in the attribution, which indicates that she? he? is a “former graduate student”. This is pretty shocking in that it is simply a pretence of objectivity. I have asked a citizen advocate there at the BLS what the requirements of disclosure of conflict of interest are. If they are strict, I will not only request that this be taken down, but will send a strongly worded comment to the academic department head and president of the second author. This kind of pimping for H-1Bs is not appropriate.

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  4. Curioser and curioser. This piece of wretched dreck is based on another piece which I will send to you. They do not cite their earlier work. I am checking now to see if this is self-plagarism.

    Earlier work: Syst. Res. 31, 745–750 (2014) DOI: 10.1002/sres.2210

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  5. > One wonders how a new paper, “STEM crisis or STEM surplus? Yes and yes,” in this month’s issue of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Monthly Labor Review, was deemed to have met the high standards of that publication. It consists of little more than a small amount of data, an unfulfilled promise of a sophisticated model, a few interviews of some probably biased sources, and the random musings of the authors.

    I agree that there’s very little data there. In addition, they did a poor job of sourcing it. For example, the source for Figure 1 is “Author’s calculations based on data from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources”. I did find their web site at http://www.cupahr.org/ but there’s no sign of the data and no indication of the calculations. I did find near duplicates of figures 2 and 3 at http://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/employment/phd1yrlater-p-12.2.pdf and http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes151132.htm (though the latter is for 2014 instead of 2013). However, I had to track those links down as the paper did not provide any.

    > As I’ve mentioned, a big issue is age; the recruiter knows that the given job is open only to young programmers, either new grads or up to 5-10 years out of school, and thus his/her statement “I can’t find enough programmers” really means, “I can’t find enough YOUNG programmers.” Or worse, the recruiter knows that the employer wants “loyal” workers who won’t jump ship to another company, a euphemism for foreign. The authors of this paper aren’t aware of these dynamics.

    True, and I wonder if those dynamics don’t provide much of the explanation for why the interviews with recruiters found many more reported shortages in the private sector than in the government and government-related sector. Because the government jobs often require security clearances, they make much less use of H-1B workers. Still, they report fewer shortages than the private sector. Might this be because they are less likely to report shortages in order to push for increasing the H-1B caps? That is, the government has much less motivation to stretch the truth because they have much less to gain from a higher H-1B cap. Also, I think that the government is more likely to hire and retain older workers.

    > The biggest problem with this paper is that the authors ignore “the elephant in the room” — wages in the IT field aren’t rising.

    Yes, this seems especially odd since they mention that “petroleum engineers are now in high demand” as indicated by the fact that “the real wages of petroleum engineers have increased”. Yet they make no mention of stagnating wages in the IT field.

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  6. (Note: comment on the following here[1]: follow link then scroll down to the comments (limit=3k characters), which you may need to click a button=”Show comments” to see. Ed Lazowska has already commented that “the only significant workforce [shortage] in STEM is in Computer Science”–but you’d expect him to say that 🙂

    Above in this thread[2] I paraphrased Matloff to say that, when US bosses and their corporate-funded media say “there aren’t enough coders,” what they really mean is “there aren’t enough cheap young coders.” I wasn’t expecting to be corroborated so soon by this interview[3] yesterday from the “The Takeaway”[4], a show widely broadcast by NPR affiliates. The host interviews Kara Miller, the “host of ‘Innovation Hub'”[5], who does what corporate-funded media seems to be paid to do–mislead without actually lying. But this may be useful, in that Miller may be tipping us off to the corporate propagandists’ next ideological line: “we need” to import STEM labor because “we need” cheaper STEM labor.

    Takeaway’s headline is somewhat correct, though IMHO misleadingly limited: “STEM Jobs Are Scarce for Recent Grads.” And there *is* a brief audio excerpt from Hal Salzman, who gives a top-level overview of STEM labor oversupply. (Note Salzman is given more time in the corresponding blog post Then the interviewer (John Hockenberry, who can do respectable journalism) asks[6], “Why are tech companies trying to import workers from overseas, and petitioning the immigration department[?]” Does Miller give the obvious answer, bosses want cheap labor? Of course not: she blames greedy US graduates! The following is an exact quote of Miller from ~1:59 into the audio[3] (unfortunately the piece’s page[3] has no transcript):

    > You’ve got a few different things going on. With tech companies, I think one of the issues is that, the salaries that people want who come out of colleges *here* and go into computer-science jobs are *very* high. I mean, you see 23-year-olds, 24-year-olds, going to work for places like Yahoo and Apple and getting 6 figures right off the bat. People who come in from other countries may be fairly well trained and they may be able to command half or two-thirds that salary. So that’s one thing.

    (In case you’re wondering, Miller’s second (of 2) points regards the difficulties of the academic/tenure-track STEM labor market: she seems to claim that is not a problem, because post-graduates “can find jobs very often.”) So there you have it: “we need” to import STEM labor, because “we need” a STEM labor oversupply, because “we need” to discipline US STEM graduates’ standard-of-living expectations.

    Interestingly, the Takeaway piece (which, again, is widely broadcast) excerpts Miller’s longer audio-blog piece[7], which is mostly a straight-up interview with Salzman, where he states (~9:30 into the audio[7]–again, following is my transcript)

    > [IT] careers are just disappearing, for a couple reasons. One [reason], a lot of change and restructuring. The second is, Congress has provided this huge [IT] guest-worker program. So we’re bringing in guest workers to replace [the] onshore and domestic workforce. So, by our estimates, the number of guest workers are equal to 2/3 of all new hires in IT. So early entry-level careers, 2/3 are guest workers, which means replacing jobs, it also means keeping wages low, it also means shortening careers

    The Innovation Hub piece also makes clear what Miller only hints at in the Takeaway piece: post-graduate (masters and above) education resembles a “pyramid scheme,” in that (as Salzman points out, ~12:40) universities rely on post-graduate students for “revenue” and (as Miller points out ~12:54) “[to have] people working in labs [cheap].”

    So truth gets buried in the low-profile blog, while “the party line” gets broadcast (labor importation disciplines greedy kids). But by either channel, no attention to, e.g., effects of NSF *policy* on the STEM and academic workforces[8], or trends in US science funding. Labor markets are apparently merely individual problems, and those individuals must not believe they might address their problems collectively. As Salzman rather disappointingly says (~14:40 into the Innovation Hub piece[7], very near its end)

    > My daughter is going into biochemistry[…] She’s great at it, she has talent, and she loves it, and I think she should pursue it. If somebody [doesn’t love it], and this happens more in tech fields and engineering[, …] they shouldn’t pursue it. So if your passion is there, there are jobs[, but otherwise] you shouldn’t force yourself into a field, particularly if there aren’t great employment prospects.

    Now *that’s* a stirring call to action :-/

    [1]: http://www.thetakeaway.org/story/are-there-enough-stem-jobs-stem-grads/#commentlist
    [2]: https://normsaysno.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/a-disappointing-paper-on-the-question-of-possible-stem-shortages/comment-page-1/#comment-1447
    [3]: page @ http://www.thetakeaway.org/story/are-there-enough-stem-jobs-stem-grads/ , audio @ http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/audio.wnyc.org/takeaway/takeaway060215-stem.mp3
    [4]: from http://www.thetakeaway.org/ : “a co-production of WNYC Radio [the largest NPR affiliate in the New York City metro area] and Public Radio International, in collaboration with The New York Times and WGBH Boston.”
    [5]: http://blogs.wgbh.org/innovation-hub/ , a blog co-produced by WGBH and PRI–this does get a bit incestuous 🙂
    [6]: at ~1:45 into the audio[NNN]
    [7]: page @ http://blogs.wgbh.org/innovation-hub/2015/4/23/hal-salzman-roundtable/ . Audio is on Soundcloud, which does not give a direct download link, but the Soundcloud is linked from the Innovation Hub link.
    [8]: see, e.g., http://users.nber.org/~peat/PapersFolder/Papers/SG/NSF.html (currently: the URI for this paper changes), http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/12044/title/Congress-Presses-Probe-Into-NSF-Prediction-Of-Scientist-Shortage/ , http://www.nber.org/papers/w12085

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  7. Wonderful blog! Do you have any hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you recommend starting with a free platform like
    Wordpress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely overwhelmed ..
    Any ideas? Thanks a lot!

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    • I went with WordPress because I knew others who wre using it. It’s been great for me, except for posting code (which I do on my other blog, matloff.wordpress.com). So, yes, I’d recommend it. As to usage,one just experiments and looks for solutions on the Web; that should be fine, unless you want to do something fancy.

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