Q&A: Harvard Researcher Argues Claims of STEM Worker Shortage Overblown

By Benjamin Herold — May 15, 2014 3 min read
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Michael Teitelbaum is senior research associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and the author of “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent. ” He talked with Education Week about why he believes persistent claims of a coming shortage of science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) workers are “exaggerated"—and why K-12 schools should continue to prepare students for these fields anyway.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

We hear a lot about the looming STEM worker shortage and the role that K-12 education ostensibly plays in that. In your new book, you maintain those claims are largely overblown. Why?

Many research projects over the last decade have tried to identify evidence of widespread shortages of scientists and engineers. Almost without exception, they haven’t been able to find it...

If there were shortages, you would look or higher wage increases in the shortage occupations than in the rest of the labor market. You would look for lower unemployment rates in such shortage occupations than in comparably skilled occupations that didn’t have such shortages. And they don’t turn up when you look at the evidence.

The claims of a current or looming of scientists and engineers, keep reappearing. The book talk about five past cycles of such alarms, all of which led to government responses to increase the number of scientists and engineers, and almost all of which ended badly when the looming shortage turned out not to be real. A lot of people found themselves graduated, but without jobs in the career paths that they had trained to go into.

Where are those claims coming from?

Now, it’s coming from industry. The claims have been made largely by companies, in particular companies in IT and computing. Some of them I think believe what they’re saying. Others understand that the best way to get what they want—more visas to import people for them to employ in their companies—from the political system is to claim there’s a looming shortage.

So are you saying that U.S. schools are actually doing OK with K-12 science and math education?

No. I think American K-12 math and science education has lots of problems. I believe the efforts to improve it are well-justified. The problems, though, are not that closely related to the [supposed] shortages of scientists and engineers.

Scientists and engineers are a critical part of labor force, but they’re a small part—about 5 percent of the U.S. workforce.

What we know about the U.S. K-12 education system, the average performance compared to other countries is sort of in the middle of the pack. But at the same time we also know that the U.S. K-12 system produces large numbers of very high-performing high school students in science and math. And it’s from that high performing tier that almost all science and engineering majors come. It’s easy to be misled by the averages of these performance numbers into thinking the problem is the K-12 system not producing enough high school grads who are high-performing in science and math to fill the science and engineering workforce. But that does not seem to be the case at all.

You make the case that many STEM fields are actually unappealing because wages are flat or declining, future prospects are unclear, the risk of off-shoring is high, and more. Given all that, should teachers and parents really be steering students into STEM fields?

Yes&mdashas long as they understand that there’s nothing guaranteed. The claims that if you only do a degree in science or math, you will have a wonderful set of high-paying opportunities, all of these rosy portrayals of how much demand there will be in the future, should be considered carefully. But if students are highly skilled in math, science, and technology, even if they don’t find an attractive career in science or engineering, [that STEM education] will stand them in good stead for success in almost any field they want to pursue.

Photo of Michael Teitelbaum courtesy of Princeton University Press.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.