Just How Many More STEM Graduates Do We Need?

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is one of the few areas in education policy that has drawn bipartisan interest and support.  In the California State Legislature 33 STEM-related bills were introduced during the 2017-18 were introduced.  So far in the 2019-20 session, only 10 STEM bills have been introduced, but there’s still another year to go.

This interest arises from concerns that there will be a shortage of STEM workers in California and the U. S. in the near future and that the U. S. is in danger of ceding STEM supremacy to countries like India and (especially) China.  These fears are typified by a recent Forbes editorial written by Arthur Herman, a Senior Fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, called “America’s High Tech STEM Crisis.”  Herman writes that, “leading trends in our higher education suggest that the U.S. is fast approaching a STEM crisis like no other—one that systematically benefits foreign countries and companies, at the expense of our own.” The main countries we are chasing in this race to the high tech topaccording to Hermanare China and India.  Hepoints to data showing that China has at least 4.7 million recent STEM grads as of 2016, India has 2.6 million as of 2017, while the U.S. had only 568,000.  He does not give a date for the U.S. numbers.

To address this problem, Herman suggests taking a page from the Sputnik-era playbook.  He writes: 

We are fast approaching another Sputnik moment, we can’t afford to ignore. Our national security, as well as economic security, depending [sic] on addressing it. We need major high-tech companies like Google and Microsoft; leading universities and colleges; the White House, the Department of Education and the Department of Defense; to come together to craft a high-tech STEM education strategy that can lead us forward to the future.

California has been responsive to this clarion call.  Countless STEM magnet and charter schools have been established, as well as STEM programs within comprehensive high schools.  Numbers are hard to come by, but I would venture to say that a substantial majority of California’s high school students have access to a STEM curriculum.  

But is that enough?  What about the dire estimates of a shortage of STEM workers?  It’s true that many STEM occupations are among the fastest growing in percentage terms. According to California’s Employment Development Department, the need for software developers, for example, is expected to grow by 40.1% between 2016 and 2026.  This is the third fastest growing occupational area and is significantly greater than the statewide average growth rate of 10.7%.  

But when we look at the projected number of new jobs instead of percentage growth, a different picture emerges. EDD projects that California will need an additional 53,800 software developers by 2026, which accounts for only 2.8% of all new job openings.  In fact, the top 11 occupations that will see the most job openings are non-STEM and they account for 94% of all new job openings.  (EDD projects 1,933,100 new openings during this 10-year period; this is net of 2,087,900 new openings less a reduction of 53,800 in shrinking occupational fields.) Computer and mathematical operation, the top STEM field in terms of the number of projected openings (116,200) represents 5.5% of all new job openings.  The top 10 STEM field openings, mostly computer-related occupations like computer systems analysts and software developers, account for 16% of all projected job openings. 

Okay, maybe the number of future job openings is not as big as popularly believed, but what about the current need to fill the existing vacancies that we hear employers complain about?  Surely filling those currently vacant positions will help prevent an oversupply of STEM graduates, right?  Well, according to the PEW Research Center, nearly half (48%) of all STEM graduates work in non-STEM fields.  This is despite the fact that, on average, STEM graduates working in STEM fields have higher earnings than STEM graduates working in non-STEM fields.  Either a significant number of STEM graduates choose to take a lower paying job in a field other than that for which they prepared or there are not enough STEM jobs to employ all STEM graduates.

A more nuanced analysis from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the STEM labor market is more heterogeneous than we typically think, and that there are both shortages and oversupplies of STEM graduates depending on level of the degree, specific STEM field, and geographic area.  This report, which you can read here, is worth reading just for its taxicab queuing metaphor.

Labor market concerns aside, some—like Mr. Herman—argue that there is a widening “STEM-gap” between the U. S. and our major competitors, like China, who are producing engineers and other STEM graduates at a much faster rate than the U. S.  This, the argument goes, is a threat to our national security as well as our global competitiveness. 

With respect to Bachelor’s-level engineering degrees, Duke University’s Pratt School on Engineering (no relation, alas) states herethat the U.S. graduates about 70,000 engineers annually, compared to 600,000 for China and 350,000 for India.  (This refers only to Bachelor’s-level degrees.  The U.S. produces more Ph.D. engineers that China according to the National Science Board).  This would seem to substantiate Herman’s point.  However, Duke’s analysis of employment data in the U.S. indicates there is no shortage of engineers, while anecdotal evidence from companies doing business in India and China report shortages in those countries.

So, which is it?  Are we losing the numbers game or not?  Well, it turns out that China and India use different definitions of “engineer,” and comparing U. S. engineering degrees with Chinese and Indian engineering degrees is not an apple to apples comparison.  In China, each province reports the number of engineer graduates to a central agency, but definitions are not consistent across provinces and they often fall short of what we think of as engineers.  For example, “engineer” can refer to a motor mechanic or technician or someone with a 2- or 3-year degree or certificate that is equivalent to an AA degree in the U.S.  These are many of the “engineers” in Mr. Herman’s numbers.

In addition to ignoring definitional differences, Herman also fails to account for qualitative differences among the degrees offered by the three countries.  And apparently the differences are substantial.  According to Zhang Duanhong, the director of the Education Policy Research Center at Tongji University, “China’s undergraduate programs are notorious for low standards and easy classes — and once you’re in, you’re practically guaranteed a degree.”  This assessment is validated by a reportfrom the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which states:  

undergraduate students at the end of their CS [computer science] programs in the United States have much higher levels of CS skills than their counterparts in three major economic and political powers: China, India, and Russia. Seniors from the average CS program in the United States score far ahead of CS seniors from the average program and are on par with seniors from elite programs from these three countries. Furthermore, seniors from the top quintile of CS programs in the United States are far ahead of seniors from elite CS programs in the other countries. Notably, the advantage of the United States is not because its CS programs have a large number of highly skilled international students.

So maybe we can take a deep breath, sit back, and make a realistic assessment of what our STEM needs really are. I’m actually a supporter of STEM (and especially STEAM—the “A” stands for arts) programs.  And I’m especially supportive of programs that expand STEM opportunities to females and students of color.  But I’m also wary of promising every student with a STEM degree a high paying STEM job.  The price of labor is subject to the same law of supply and demand as the price of any other service or commodity.  An oversupply will push wages down.  That would be a disservice to our students.  In addition, an overemphasis on STEM could displace educational opportunities to prepare students for perfectly rewarding careers in non-STEM fields. That would be a loss.

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