Is there a shortage of talented workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) in America?
It’s one of the most fundamental questions of the immigration reform debate.
They argue that in order to meet these needs, since American-born students don’t fit the bill, they have to look elsewhere and recruit foreign-born talent to fulfil their demand for STEM-trained workers.
But the thing is, there isn’t really a STEM shortage. There is a different kind of shortage, but the American people won’t like to admit it.
The Economic Policy Institute published an informative paper several weeks that broke down a lot of the myths around the STEM shortage.
First, let’s look at basic economics. When there’s a shortage — when demand exceeds supply — the price of a good increases. If there were truly a supply shortage, then, why hasn’t the compensation for tech workers increased dramatically?
Even more, were there truly a STEM shortage — were demand for STEM majors to exceed supply — one would expect that unemployment statistics for recent STEM graduates would be outstandingly low.
The reality? Nope. From a new report from the esteemed Georgetown centre on Education and the Workforce on recent graduate unemployment:
Unemployment seems mostly concentrated in information systems (14.7 %) compared with computer science (8.7%) and mathematics (5.9%). As noted in an earlier report, hiring tends to be slower for users of information compared to those who write programs and create software applications.
So if there were a shortage, it managed to completely disregard the fundamental laws of supply and demand.
Second, let’s look at what the supply — new college graduates who majored in computer science or technology positions — has been like.
It turns out, many STEM majors don’t go into a field within their major. Pay attention to the two leftmost columns, the levels for engineering and computer science:
It’s perfectly natural for many STEM majors to not desire to work in the industry of their major, let alone STEM. Personally, I happen to be one such STEM major, who now works in journalism.
STEM training conveys a number of significant benefits to the student, and it isn’t strictly STEM fields that require analytical thinking and talent with calculations.
However, there are some major red flags when you look at why some of these computer science and engineering majors are not working in the tech sector:
This is actually a big deal, and a core argument against a STEM shortage.
From an earlier chart, we saw that 35.4% of computer and information science majors don’t work in the computer and information science field.
Combining the information from these two charts about computer and information science majors:
- 64.5% of computer science majors are working in their major field
- 18.7% of computer science majors are not working in the field because of pay, promotion or working conditions.
- 11.2% of computer science majors are not working in the field because jobs are not available
- The remaining 5.6% aren’t working in CS because of job location or other factors
It’s the middle two of these four stats that are most concerning.
If Silicon Valley has a shortage of tech workers, why are 11% of CS majors claiming that there weren’t jobs available?
Likewise, if there’s such a desperate shortage, why is Silicon Valley not keeping compensation on pace with demand, in order to attract the 19% that cite pay or working conditions as a reason they’re not working in tech?
Most importantly: Why is the technology industry citing a non-existent shortage of American STEM majors as the justification for raising the number of foreign born worker permits?
There’s an answer, but Americans aren’t going to like it.
We clearly don’t have a STEM shortage. If we did, rudimentary economics would kick in and show either low unemployment for new majors or a rising price of computer science labour. People wouldn’t say they’re out of the industry because of no jobs.
What we really have is a “STEM majors who have the skills that Silicon Valley needs willing to work for a price Silicon Valley wants to pay” shortage.
That’s OK! That’s a perfectly reasonable problem to try to address.
Just because someone graduates with a degree in computers doesn’t make them Alan Turing (the famous British mathematician and computer science pioneer).
There are any number of reasons that people who hold a degree in tech won’t meet the actual requirements of Silicon Valley.
Not all degrees are created equal — much has been written about the rise, for instance, of for-profit colleges, and the difficulty their graduates have in getting gainful employment — and maybe if all it takes is a C+ to graduate, you’re just not Google material.
Plus, Silicon Valley shouldn’t be expected to hire every American.
It’s a hard truth, but frankly not everybody deserves to have the job they want. We all know there isn’t enough room on the Space Shuttle for all the wannabe astronauts out there. It’s the same thing with tech. The tech industry is a for-profit entity that subscribes to the musings of Adam Smith more than Emma Lazarus.
But what makes this most galling for the Silicon Valley crowd is that they’re looking at American colleges and they’re seeing a whole lot of foreign born students that are crushing the homegrown talent.
They want that talent.
They’re businesses, and in a perfect laissez-faire world they would be able to hire who they want whenever they want, regardless of visa status.
So when it comes to being forced into an annual temporary visa lottery that has escalated to the point that a year’s worth of temporary work visas is gone in a frenzied five days, you can get why Silicon Valley gets peeved about the process.
But then you get to the question about how to sell this to Americans.
Do you come right out and say the truth?
“Hey America, please raise the visa limit. There’s a shortage of STEM talent that is willing to work for what we’ll pay that also meets our high standards. When it comes down to it, a lot of the world is better at what we need than you, and we don’t feel like paying your mediocre tech talent what they expect because not everybody deserves a job and we have Samsung to beat.”
That’s the sort of talk that gets college kids grabbing pitchforks.
Instead, you reduce it down. You say there’s a STEM shortage, which is only part of the truth, but enough to get people listening.
There’s nothing really wrong with that. America has some of the greatest tech companies, and they have a crucial need for talent. They should be able to get the best of the best. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
Even more, it’s difficult to understate the positive economic benefits that additional high-skill immigrants bring. Each new immigrant provides an economic stimulus by virtue of paying taxes and spending money in the American economy. There’s also the incentive that high-skill immigrants have when it comes to starting new companies and patenting new innovations.
It makes a lot of sense to increase the number of high-skill immigrants to the U.S.
It makes even more sense to hand them green cards — permanent visas — rather than the temporary six-year H-1B visas that Silicon Valley wants, but that’s another issue entirely.
The issue is, saying that there is a STEM shortage to justify all of those benefits runs the risk of the argument losing credibility.
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