Prominent Political Scientist Decries STEM “Frenzy”

Andrew Hacker, a distinguished political scientist, has published a provocative piece in the July 9 issue of the New York Review of Books., titled “The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent.” It has been brought to my attention by a number of readers of this blog, and interestingly, by a number of people who I know who are only vaguely aware of my rantings on the H-1B work visa and related issues.

One style in the book review genre consists of the reviewer discussing several books collectively, using this as a springboard to pontificate on the reviewer’s own view of the subject. Such is the case here. Hacker starts with Michael Teitelbaum’s  Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, which I’ve cited a number of times in this blog, and includes other books such as The Smartest Kids in the World, by The Atlantic‘s Amanda Ripley.

I’ve been an admirer of Professor Hacker’s work for many years, and thus was pleased to see him address the topic (which he apparently will do more of in a forthcoming book). Though his analysis errs in certain aspects (discussed below), I’m quite pleased to see him bring up what has become a taboo topic: Is technology that important, so much so that it would be desirable for the U.S. to greatly increase the proportion of university students to major in STEM? For example, Hacker quotes a Microsoft reporting lamenting/warning that 31% of university students in China major in engineering, compared to a minuscule 4% in the U.S.

It’s a classic fallacy (and no doubt a deliberate one). The fact that a smaller percentage of students in the U.S. major in engineering doesn’t mean we don’t have enough. But fear of China is driving a lot of U.S. policy these days (e.g. on the Trade Promotion Authority), and Microsoft’s PR experts knew which buttons to push in playing the China Card here. As Hacker seems to realize, the press, pundits and  politicians fall for this kind of stuff, and thus have not called out Microsoft on such claims. Indeed, Hacker’s questioning here is akin to heresy — as in Teitelbaum’s book, and for that matter, this blog. 🙂

Hacker does make a number of missteps. Unfortunately, he badly misquotes me. I’ve never written about the wage gap between CEOs and the “proletarian” engineers, for instance. (I suspect that the CEOs are drastically overcompensated, but if their boards want to be so generous, it’s no concern of mine.) I don’t approve of tech boot camps, contrary what is implied by Hacker, and no, Microsoft is not going to switch from hiring university tech grads to raiding the boot camps. He makes the common error of stating that the H-1B employers must give hiring priority to Americans. In spite of having an H-1B “how to” manual as one of the books he is “reviewing,” Hacker seems to be unaware of the four-tier wage floor structure, key to the use of H-1B workers as cheap labor (most of which is fully legal). In referring to the fact that foreign workers tend to be de facto indentured servants, he confuses the H-1B program with the (equally pernicious) employer-sponsored green card program.

I wish Hacker had gone more deeply into the question of how all this frenzy over STEM came about. As the Teitelbaum book points out, various parties with hidden agendas have created a STEM frenzy at various times over the years, and we all know about the influence of Sputnik. But the current frenzy can be explained in just four characters: H-1B. In 1997, the industry, led by the Information Technology Association of America lobbying group, started pushing Congress to expand the H-1B program, which it did in 1998, and then again in 2000 and 2004. To support this, the lobbyists launched a concerted, multipronged, widespread PR campaign, and though their interest was narrow — mainly computer programmers — they realized that it would be much more effective to use the far broader umbrella term STEM. (Indeed, I believe they were the ones who coined the term.)

This was a brilliant move, as not only did it dovetail with the old rallying cries of “Johnny Can’t Do Math,” but it had benefits for many special-interest groups — K-12 school districts who wanted more money for science classes, universities that wanted expanded STEM research funding, politiicians looking for an issue that would leverage comprehensive immigration reform, and of course, the American Immigration Lawyers Association. By the way, at the time, even former Intel CEO Andy Grove characterized all that commotion about a STEM shortage as “hyperventilated,” but no one listened.

One point Hacker does address especially well is question whether the “holy” international school tests, notably PISA, are meaningful measures and relate to desirable social/economic outcomes, a point on which I have also written in one of my Bloomberg op-eds. I find this summary of some material in the Ripley book to be particularly striking:

But as Ripley makes clear with South Korea, equally important is mastering the test formats and becoming familiar with the kinds of calculations demanded. She shows how cramming academies aimed at preparing for tests, which run to 10:00 PM every night and enroll 70 percent of all students, end up being more important than the regular schools. In a daytime class she visited, a third of the pupils were asleep. (Girls strap tiny pillows to their wrists for quick naps at their desks.)

Hacker ends his piece by rightly asking if this is what the U.S. should aspire to. His answer is clearly no, as is mine.



11 thoughts on “Prominent Political Scientist Decries STEM “Frenzy”

  1. Hacker’s article has a few soft spots, but what bothers me about it is this, he accurately sees that the hype is bogus, but he misses that the issue is critical in several ways – basically microeconomically in the immediate jobs it provides, either going to Americans or leaving the Americans on the street while importing cheap labor (of dubious quality), and macroeconomically being crucial to the strategic architecture of western civilization – not to underplay it! Hacker is worried about the social impact of tech-heads, but that’s not the issue. I don’t think he quite understands the ethos of “technocracy” as it existed in the early-mid twentieth century, either, but that’s just a footnote now.

    But on your own points:
    >I suspect that the CEOs are drastically overcompensated,
    >but if their boards want to be so generous, it’s no concern of mine

    Maybe it should be, the money being stolen by the execs is not shared in salaries and “forces” lower staff salaries, feeding the hunger for cheap H-1Bs, and socially destructive of the larger society per the rest of our story.

    >Microsoft is not going to switch from hiring university tech grads to raiding the boot camps.

    Sure they will. It’s a small step from incompetent, cheap H-1Bs to incompetent, cheaper boot camp grads.

    I think it was Jim McCarthy in the old “Dynamics of Software Development” early from Microsoft Press who noted you can see the skills of the programmers in the products. Microsoft has always trailed the industry by ten years, taken multiple releases to get things working, and innovated basically not at all. The gross incompetence of the interface design of Windows 8 shows these are not ancient problems. My favorite SQL Server, one of the jewels of Microsoft’s crown, is falling further and further behind market needs. I’ve seen no changes for the better yet from new management. In short, I see no sign that Microsoft has a culture of excellence that will resist downward spirals.


    • Requirements for an H-1B require a degree in the field. Whether this is strictly enforced is questionable. Some IT jobs require only experience, an associates degree or vo-tech training yet can qualify for H-1B sponsorship. Even high school geeks can do some of the tasks for which H-1Bs are being imported.


      • I don’t think lack of a degree is common. It has not been mentioned in the audits. I do agree with you and Mark that some jobs really don’t require much background. Actually, I’ve said before that for software testing, it’s actually better to have at least some of it done by nongeeks.
        In any case, I’ve always suggested to those who are pushing for a tightening of H-1B policy that they “keep their eyes on the prize,” focusing on the central issue — use of H-1Bs as cheap, indentured labor. Bringing up miscellaneous forms of abuse simply encourages Congress to get itself off the hook by making small reforms around the edges.


        • One local employer had a large roomful of “developers” who I was told mostly lacked degrees, but I never actually looked inside to see if they were Indian, and they could have been L-1 or something, that doesn’t require a degree does it?

          I was talking to them about employment, they were suffering from ongoing problems that required half a dozen people full-time, were talking about rearchitecting (rebuilding) the whole system which would have cost millions, we were talking about their “developers” when I asked if they had the skills and I was assured they did NOT. I could have fixed it all for them in a few weeks, but they could not pony up another $20k for my salary over their code monkey salaries (much less a fair payment of say half what I could save them per year!) so we never made the deal.

          Too typical.


          • The H-1B JOB has to require a Bachelors DEGREE (4 years of education after high school). But for USCIS anything that needs plugging in & staring at a screen obviously means a B.S. must be had to do the job.
            The WORKER however must have Bachelors LEVEL – and that can be achieved by a mix of education and work experience (3 years of work, roughly speaking, equals 1 year of education).


      • It’s mentioned, but not enforceable. There are no penalties, etc. It used to be that USCIS approved a lot of applicants that did not have equiv. of a bachelor’s. But, that has tapered off. Still, even accounting for the highly qualified H-1B guest fashion models of outstanding talent, they still approve 100 or so each year who lack the equiv. of a bachelors.

        What still aggravates me are the many many writers confuse/conflate the “limits” or “caps” as “the cap”, and neglect the 160K and more H-1B visas actually being issued through DoS each year.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I believe a lot of Microsoft jobs are for “software test” which any competent high school graduate that can understand basic English can do. You read the requirements document and set up a scenario (or multiple scenarios) using the normal usage of the software and verify that the requirements are met. If you have the time and inclination you try to anticipate how you can make the software fail to meet the requirements. During your testing you might notice other anomalies that need to be corrected.

      I know how simple this is because I did it for a medical products company when the defense industries were decimated in Southern California. I think the engineers whose work I was checking were surprised that I actually could find the errors in their code (software testers are assumed to be incompetent) and they had some respect for me. The job paid way more it could have and I got stock options so I retired on that money. However, in no way did that job require anything above simple programming and electrical circuits knowledge and the ability to read and comprehend English. I doubt with Microsoft you would even need to know the basic electronics to do the job.


      • LOL. I once hired some high school kids to do some boring testing. It didn’t really work out as well as I’d hoped. Still I think you’re right, and Microsoft will hire boot camp kidz because they feel they must, even if they end up washing executives’ cars and sweeping the floors.


  2. Thank you Norm for your pointer to the lengthy Andrew Hacker article. U.S. employer interests have long known that it is far less expensive to promote “studies” alleging a “looming shortage of scientists and engineers” than it is to offer competitive salaries and good working conditions. See for example, “The STEM Crisis Is a Myth – Forget the dire predictions of a looming shortfall of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians” By Robert N. Charette Posted 30 Aug 2013 | 17:47 GMT at the IEEE Spectrum Charette cites an example from 1936 to illustrate the longstanding application of this principle by employer interests.

    One of the things that I learned while researching the hyperventilated claims of employer interests following the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik-I on 04 October 1957 was the fraudulent nature of those claims. As a matter of fact, the U.S. could have launched Explorer-I more than a year before the Soviets. However, we did not, as the U.S. wanted to protect its nascent satellite surveillance program known as CORONA from Soviet and Chinese diplomatic criticism. This pioneering overhead surveillance program, which ran from 1957-1972 had a total of 144 satellite launches during this period. [The key film-return technology was relied on until the completion of the HEXAGON program in 1986.] Not surprisingly, I’m having a challenging time getting this correction to the U.S. Space Race history accepted by the National Air and Space Museum’s (NASM) historians of science and technology. I served as a volunteer NASM docent at the National Mall Building from 2009-2012.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Huh. My father probably worked on these, maybe from the earliest days, I know he was involved with early Atlas guidance systems but I never heard from him what the payloads were, if any. It was all top-level classified until well after he retired. But things are more public about the “missile gap” in the 1960s for carrying nuclear bombs, that was always more political than technical.


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