Education Opinion

Shortage of Math and Science Graduates Is a Myth

By Walt Gardner — December 10, 2010 3 min read
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Critics assert that schools are not producing enough qualified math and science graduates to meet the needs of companies as they attempt to compete in the new global economy. But the latest data released by the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates call that view into question.

A record 49,562 doctorate degrees were awarded in the 2008-09 academic year, representing a 1.6 percent increase over the 2007-08 year. According to the foundation, the growth was largely due to increases in the number of degrees in science and engineering. In 2009, 67.5 percent of all doctorates were in these two fields, a 1.9 percent increase over the previous academic year.

Yet despite this growth, companies continue to insist that they need to recruit abroad because of a shortage domestically. The more likely explanation is that they prefer looking overseas because H1-B visa holders are willing to work for below-market wages.

Government data show that Indian outsourcing companies, for example, account for nearly 80 percent of the visa petitions approved for the top ten participants in the program. These companies allow low-level workers from other countries to train in the U.S. for salaries far below what Americans with similar backgrounds can live on, and then return home.

Actually, the story about a shortage is not new.

In Oct. 2007, B. Lindsay Lowell and Harold Saltzman reported in “Into the Eye of the Storm” that about three STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates exist for every new STEM position, not counting openings caused by retirees. They also found that two years after graduation, 20 percent of STEM bachelor degree holders were still in school, albeit not in STEM fields. Moreover, 45 percent of STEM graduates in the workplace were not in STEM jobs. They concluded that the educational system is producing a supply of STEM graduates far in excess of demand.

Echoing this finding, in Nov. 2007 Michael Teitelbaum, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has long devoted substantial funding to improving science, engineering and economic performance, testified before the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation. He cited several RAND Corporation studies that found an overall surplus - not shortage.

“These findings of no general shortage are entirely consistent with isolated shortages of skilled people in narrow fields or in specific technologies that are quite new or growing explosively.” Teitelbaum charged that the conventional depiction of STEM shortages is “simply the expressions of interests by interest groups and their lobbyists.”

In Oct. 2009, Lowell and Saltzman in “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students Through the Science and Engineering Pipeline” found that the flow of math and science students is strong. The exception is high achievers, who are defecting to other majors.

These formal studies are backed up by a series of letters published in the Wall Street Journal from experienced STEM professionals in New York, Colorado and Florida who are unable to find work in their field at wages commensurate with their backgrounds. All doubted the need for the issuance of H1-B visas in light of the reality of the market.

Their complaints were supported in Oct. 2010 by the Conference Board, a business and economic research organization. It reported that high-tech companies have been slow to hire even workers with advanced skills and years of experience. So once again, I ask if the problem is educational or economic.

In light of the available evidence, it’s time to wonder if criticism of America’s education system in this crucial area is justified. The usual attack is based on tests of international competition, specifically on the Trends in International Math and Science Study.

But TIMSS is given to students in their final year of school. As a result, it allows anyone between the ages of 17 in the U.S. to 21 in other countries to be counted. Clearly, the differences in ages are significant, but curiously not noted in reportage. If the math and science scores were accurately calculated by factoring in the appropriate variables, the U.S. would be about average.

While less than a sterling performance, high school graduates are still going on to earn doctorates at an increasing rate, as the latest data from the National Science Foundation showed. What should be disturbing, therefore, are hiring policies that discourage the brightest students from pursuing a career in these fields.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.