STEM Worker Shortage?

Conventional wisdom is that there is a shortage of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) workers in the economy. Recently a counter narrative has emerged that the US has plenty of STEM workers. Here are some pertinent facts:

  1. In 2011, the unemployment rate of college-educated STEM workers was still 3.4 percent—more than double the 1.4 percent rate it stood at immediately preceding the recession that began in late 2007.
  2. In 2008, only 59% of PhDs in biological sciences were employed in fields related to their research, down from 71% in 1997.
  3. In 2011 nearly 28% of STEM (Life, Physical, Social Sciences and Engineering) PhD graduates were unemployed at graduation.
  4. Over the last 20 years the number of PhDs with jobs at graduation has declined while the number with a post doc or nothing has climbed
  5. There are ~300,00 STEM job vacancies per year while 11.4 million STEM degree holders work outside of STEM fields

There seems to be clear indicators that many fields within STEM are suffering from an excess of workers rather than a shortage. With that in mind the calls for more STEM education to create more STEM workers seems ill-informed. What can or should be done to reduce the excess of STEM workers in some fields?

I would propose some combination of the below:

  1. Collect and publish employment data by major and school. Collect wage information and job data at graduation, one year after graduation, and five years after graduation – Ensuring incoming students have access to current and accurate employment and wage data would allow them to make informed decisions about what to major in and where they should attend to maximize their earnings and chance of employment. Centralizing this information and ensuring there are uniform reporting standards would give students the best information possible in contrast to the patchwork of data available at present from a variety of sources.
  2. Allocate more NIH, NSF, and other agencies funding to post graduate positions; reduce funding directed to graduate students- Increased funding of post-doctorate positions would increase the employment pool for STEM PhD holders. If this was done by reallocating funds that go to funding graduate studies it would also reduce the number of new graduates into an uncertain employment market.
  3. As part of research funding, require schools and academic departments to encourage development of skills for careers beyond research for graduate students- With a limited number of academic positions available graduate students need to be prepared for alternative careers and what’s more should be encouraged to consider careers outside of academia.
  4. Tax credit for training new STEM hires- Allowing employers to deduct part of their training budget would encourage them to hire new STEM employees capable of being trained to perform work even if missing some desired qualifications. This would also give the employee new skills improving their chances of remaining employed or finding new work.
  5. Make the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit permanent – The Research and Experimentation Tax Credit has been renewed regularly since its inception in 1981 with broad bipartisan support. Making it permanent rather than requiring periodic and often late retroactive renewal would allow companies to plan ahead and incorporate the savings into their long-term research goals. Since employee salaries are a qualifying expense, increasing the deduction rate would spur hiring by companies and make domestic workers more competitive with foreign workers.

These are just some ideas I’ve had, I would be interested in feedback about them and additional ideas from other people. What ideas seem workable? Which ones are too farfetched?

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