Study finds there may not be a shortage of American STEM graduates after all


President Obama hosted the White House Science Fair to celebrate the student winners of a broad range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions from across the country this week. A new study shows that the country’s STEM worker shortage is a myth. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on in Washington, it’s that the country has a woeful shortage of workers trained in science, technology, engineering and math — what’s referred to as STEM.

President Obama has said that improving STEM education is one of his top priorities. Chief executives regularly come through Washington complaining that they can’t find qualified American workers for openings at their firms that require a science background. And armed with this argument in the debate over immigration policy, lobbyists are pushing hard for more temporary work visas, known as H-1Bs, which they say are needed to make up for the lack of Americans with STEM skills.

But not everyone agrees. A study released Wednesday by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute reinforces what a number of researchers have come to believe: that the STEM worker shortage is a myth.

The EPI study found that the United States has “more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations.” Basic dynamics of supply and demand would dictate that if there were a domestic labor shortage, wages should have risen. Instead, researchers found, they’ve been flat, with many Americans holding STEM degrees unable to enter the field and a sharply higher share of foreign workers taking jobs in the information technology industry. (IT jobs make up 59 percent of the STEM workforce, according to the study.)

The answer to whether there is a shortage of such workers has important ramifications for the immigration bill. If it exists, then there’s an urgency that justifies allowing companies to bring more foreign workers into the country, usually on a short-term H-1B visa. But those who oppose such a policy argue that companies want more of these visas mainly because H-1B workers are paid an estimated 20 percent less than their American counterparts. Why allow these companies to hire more foreign workers for less, the critics argue, when there are plenty of Americans who are ready to work?

The EPI study said that while the overall number of U.S. students who earn STEM degrees is small — a fact that many lawmakers and the news media have seized on — it’s more important to focus on what happens to these students after they graduate. According to the study, they have a surprisingly hard time finding work. Only half of the students graduating from college with a STEM degree are hired into a STEM job, the study said.

“Even in engineering,” the authors said, “U.S. colleges have historically produced about 50 percent more graduates than are hired into engineering jobs each year.”

The picture is not that bright for computer science students, either. “For computer science graduates employed one year after graduation . . . about half of those who took a job outside of IT say they did so because the career prospects were better elsewhere, and roughly a third because they couldn’t find a job in IT,” the study said.

While liberal arts graduates might be used to having to look for jobs with only tenuous connections to their majors, the researchers said this shouldn’t be the case for graduates with degrees attached to specific skills such as engineering.

The tech industry has said that it needs more H-1B visas in order to hire the “best and the brightest,” regardless of their citizenship. Yet the IT industry seems to have a surprisingly low bar for education. The study found that among IT workers, 36 percent do not have a four-year college degree. Among the 64 percent who do have diplomas, only 38 percent have a computer science or math degree.

The bipartisan immigration plan introduced last week by the so-called Gang of Eight senators would raise the number of H-1B visas, though it would limit the ability of outsourcing firms to have access to them. Tech companies such as Facebook and Microsoft have fought hard to distinguish themselves from these outsourcing companies, arguing that unlike firms such as Wipro, they’re looking for the best people, not just ones who will work for less.

But some worry that the more H-1Bs allowed into the system, the more domestic workers get crowded out, resulting in what no one appears to want: fewer American students seeing much promise in entering STEM fields.

Jia Lynn Yang is a staff writer at The Washington Post who covers policy and business. Before joining the Post, she worked at Fortune magazine.
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