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Topic: The truth about the great American science shortfall
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 13,291
Registered: 12/3/04
The truth about the great American science shortfall
Posted: Mar 4, 2014 6:05 PM
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From The Los Angeles Times, Monday, February 24, 2014. See
- our thanks to Mike Martin for bringing this piece to our attention.
The truth about the great American science shortfall

By Karin Klein

It was confusing when, several years ago, Bill Gates blasted American
education for failing to produce enough graduates in science,
technology and engineering. Really? Not enough workers in those
fields? At the same time that he was making these statements, I knew
computer programmers and biologists who couldn't find jobs and others
who were facing stagnating and falling wages.

Yet, as with many positions Gates takes on education - often backed
by sizable contributions to bolster his vision - this one took off
and clung. Conferences are held on opening more high schools that
specialize in STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. There
have been suggestions that the nation should cut those pesky
humanities departments and liberal arts degrees in colleges and
universities. The Obama administration, which has bought into
numerous educational shibboleths, has made it a goal to push for a
million new STEM graduates in coming years.

Over the weekend, a Harvard researcher finally cast a more critical
eye on all the hoopla. The conclusion: While the great STEM shortage
isn't wholly myth, it certainly has been mightily overhyped.

Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate in the Labor and
Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, laid out the evidence for
journalists Saturday at the USC-hosted conference of the Education
Writers Assn:

If there were a big, general shortage of these workers, you would
expect to see their wages rising. That hasn't happened.

There would be relatively low and declining unemployment rates
compared with people of similar educational levels. Hasn't happened.

There should be faster-than-average employment growth, which is
occurring in some occupations but not others.

In fact, Teitelbaum portrayed the life of a biomedical researcher as
practically grim. It takes an especially long time to obtain a
doctoral degree in the field, and graduates are not being snapped up
for jobs. The wages are lower than average for someone with that
level of education, and the jobs tend to be unstable. Engineers start
with higher wages, but those quickly flatten, and their jobs are
notoriously insecure. Computer and information technology jobs are
given to boom-and-bust cycles, but at least during the booms, the
salaries are high.

The chatter about STEM is based on some realities, Teitelbaum said.
Engineers might not, as a group, be terribly sought-after, but some
specialized kinds of engineers are in hot demand - at least right
now. There are regional shortages as well, and people have been less
willing to move to another part of the country where the demand might
be higher. That might in part be explained by cost-of-living
differences - a computer job in the Bay Area's Silicon Valley, even
if it pays 50% more than elsewhere, isn't seen as a good deal when
housing there costs four times as much as in many other places.

But there's more to that unwillingness to move, according to the
conference speakers. Partly that's an attachment to roots and
families in young professionals that was less present in the baby
boomer generation. But a big factor is that they don't trust that the
move will result in a long-term job. And who can blame them? Jobs
don't tend to be jobs anymore; they're contracts, often without
benefits, for limited periods of time. Even when they are regular
staff positions, people have little confidence that the job will
continue. Employers show less loyalty to the people who work for
them, and the workforce is responding in kind.

So from where does the STEM hype stem? According to Teitelbaum - who
has written a book on the subject, due out in March, titled "Falling
Behind?: Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent" - some
of it comes from the country's longtime cycle of waxing and waning
interest in science; attention seems to focus on science every 10 to
15 years before slacking off.

The only forces pushing the idea of STEM doom, he said, are those
that have something to gain from it. Mostly those are STEM employers
- the tech industry, for example - that want to pack the labor force
with people to suppress wages, he said, as well as lobby for looser
immigration laws so that they can bring in less expensive overseas
workers. Joining the chorus are universities that want more funding
for science programs, as well as immigration lawyers who see the
potential for handling large numbers of work visas.

The Chronicle of Higher Education did an excellent job of reporting
on this in November 2013; unfortunately, the publication isn't read
much by the general public. [See "The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth?"
http://chronicle.com/article/The-STEM-Crisis-Reality-or/142879/ ]

A lot also depends on what you call a STEM job. Regardless of what
the Obama administration says, some of the real need is for
technically-oriented jobs that don't require any sort of college
degree. Want to be in demand these days? According to the speakers,
the workers everyone wants are trained welders and glaziers.
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Students run an experiment in a chemistry class at an
Illinois high school. (Charles Bennett / Associated Press / February
24, 2014)
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu

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