The STEM Labor Shortage

There has been an ongoing debate on whether there is a STEM labor shortage or a STEM labor surplus. How is it that many graduates cannot find jobs while some jobs cannot find graduates to fill their open positions? To put it simply, it’s more complicated than a number of graduates or a number of open jobs.

STEM is not homogeneous; someone with a bachelor’s degree in biology cannot fill a position requiring a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, “Across all the different disciplines, yes, there is a STEM crisis, and no, there is no STEM crisis. It depends on how and where you look.” Let’s discuss where there are shortages and where there are surpluses.

The STEM Labor Shortage

STEM Connector reported in December 2017 that 2.4 million STEM jobs will go unfilled by 2018. This prediction represents part of a larger problem in the U.S. Due to the lack of qualified applicants, a large number of STEM jobs continue to go unfilled.

For example, the U.S. Department of Labor has reported that U.S. university graduates will likely only fill 29% of the 1.4 million job openings for computer specialists. A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics states, “According to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the United States would need to increase its yearly production of undergraduate STEM degrees by 34 percent over current rates to match the demand forecast for STEM professionals.”

This problem is not rooted in the number of applicants admitted to universities or staffing gaps at the university level, but rather due to the lack of students majoring in the STEM tracks that are experiencing shortages.

This gap in talent has affected several U.S. government agencies. The Air Force Personnel Center has gaps in several fields, such as electrical engineering, physics, and nuclear engineering. They specifically need people with higher degrees in these and a few other fields. The Aeronautical Systems Center reports similar shortages in software engineering, manufacturing engineering, and so on.

Other U.S. government agencies report a high number of open positions in systems engineering, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, and cybersecurity. These agencies all seem to share a similar struggle – there are not enough U.S. citizens with advanced degrees in these fields.

Within the private sector, software engineers with hands-on experience through internships, extracurricular, etc. are in high demand, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jobs in petroleum engineering are also growing. There’s a growing demand in some careers below the bachelor’s degree level as well. There have been reported shortages in many technical positions for qualified applicants, such as machinists, operators, technicians, and so on.

Location also matters: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in a different publication from July 2017 that California-Lexington Park, Maryland, San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California, Boulder, Colorado, and Huntsville, Alabama had the highest percentage of STEM employment in May 2016. California trended towards computer hardware engineers and software developers.

This problem extends to STEM teachers. Christopher Kennedy from STEM Teachers NYC, an organization dedicated to “addressing a STEM teacher crisis” in New York City, says of New York City public schools, “We’re the largest school system in the U.S., and there’s unfortunately not a lot of science teachers […] we’re only finding 15-20% of students have access to physics, or like 50-60% have access to chemistry.” Without adequate science education at the middle and high school levels, there is little hope of addressing the shortages we currently face.

The 4th annual survey by Emerson reports that “2 in 5 Americans Believe the STEM Worker Shortage is at Crisis Levels”, that is to say, a good portion of America believes that the STEM labor shortage has reached a level that will cause major issues in the future. “They just can’t find enough people to help out,” says Christopher Kennedy, in a discussion about engineering projects that need to be done on infrastructure, “Unfortunately, these projects get delayed and these engineering works – they fail.” The ramifications of STEM labor shortages as we see them now are the possible failure of key infrastructure in the future. Without a steady supply of qualified applicants to fill jobs, new problems will arise that affect the daily lives of the average American.

However, the problems will not stop with infrastructure. STEM is vital to the economy and global position of the U.S. According to the National Academy of the Sciences, “The future competitiveness of the United States in an increasingly interconnected global economy depends on the nation fostering a workforce with strong capabilities and skills in STEM.”

The STEM Labor Surplus     

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 74% of citizens who hold a bachelor’s degree in STEM don’t work in a STEM occupation. How could that be when there are the previously mentioned shortages? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The demand and supply of STEM workers vary by market and location […] The demand for workers with doctorates in mechanical engineering is different from the demand for those with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and the supply of workers with doctorates in the biomedical sciences is different from the supply of those with doctorates in physics.” In short, whether there is a shortage or a surplus depends on what field, where, and how qualified the applicants are.

That means it’s important to pay attention to what areas within STEM are adding new jobs and growing versus which areas are experiencing a surplus. For instance, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a surplus of STEM college professors, especially in the fields like biology. “Chemistry and biomedical graduates also have taken a hard hit, due to the downsizing and offshoring of biotechnology, chemical, and pharmaceutical jobs. Since 2000, U.S. pharmaceutical companies have cut 300,000 jobs,” the Bureau goes on to say.

One of the biggest challenges we face in managing the shortages and surpluses, however, comes in a simple fact: we do not know what jobs will exist in the future. According to STEM Connector, “Estimates suggest that 65 percent of children entering elementary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that are not on our radar yet.” The students of today are ultimately being prepared for jobs that we do not know about. Who, in the year 2000, would have been able to plan to one day work in app development or cryptocurrency, when neither existed yet? The careers we see today do not reflect those that will exist ten or twenty years for now, so to mitigate future STEM shortages, we need to prepare the students of today with a solid background in STEM.

So, is there a STEM labor shortage or surplus? In the words of the National Science Foundation in 2016, “Close study…reveals that there is no straightforward “yes” or “no” answer to whether the United States has a surplus or shortage of STEM workers. The answer is always “it depends.” It depends on which segment of the workforce is being discussed and where. It also depends on whether “enough” or “not enough STEM workers” is being understood in terms of the quantity of workers; the quality of workers in terms of education or job training; racial, ethnic or gender diversity, or some combination of these considerations.” There is both a STEM labor shortage and a STEM labor surplus.