The Urgent Demand for STEM Graduates Is Dubious

In a post to this blog that I made on June 18, “Why Selecting a College Major Primarily Because of the Employment Outlook in That Field Is a Terrible Idea” [https://academeblog.org/2015/06/18/why-selecting-a-college-major-primarily-because-of-the-employment-outlook-in-that-field-is-a-terrible-idea/], I focused on some of the salient points made in an interview by Peter Cappelli, a Professor of Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who has specialized in studies of employment patterns and, more specifically, shifts in the American economy that have made some jobs obsolete and that have created demand for new specialties.

In his most recent book, Will College Pay Off?, Cappelli argues very persuasively against the notion that the value of a college education should be measured by the immediate employability of and compensation received by new graduates—asserting, instead, that the value of a college education much exceeds that of vocational or job training.

More than a year ago, on July 11, 2014, I posted a chart from the Census Bureau on “STEM Graduates and STEM Employment” [https://academeblog.org/2014/07/11/stem-graduates-and-stem-employment/], with this comment: “The chart may not necessarily indicate that the coming demand for STEM majors has been over-hyped, but it is clear that the current number of STEM degrees far exceeds the current demand for them.”

In at least one other post, I have gone as far as to suggest that the idea may be to create a surplus of STEM workers in order to depress wages in those high-wage fields.

In still other posts, I have repeatedly questioned why there has been so much emphasis on STEM degrees and so much denigration of degrees in the humanities and social sciences when more than 70% of jobs are now in service fields.

I have voiced my suspicions that hyping STEM has been a very convenient way to denigrate, both explicitly and implicitly, the value of the humanities and social sciences, and I have suggested that such a devaluing of those disciplines aligns not just with a very corporate mindset but also with the political ideology that sees those disciplines as bastions of Liberalism on our campuses.

On August 1, an article by Michael Hiltzik, published in the Los Angeles Times, provides some very pointed answers to the sorts of questions that I have been raising. The article is titled “Tech Industry’s Persistent Claim of Worker Shortage May Be Phony.” Here is how the article opens:

“Alice Tornquist, a Washington lobbyist for the high-tech firm Qualcomm, took the stage at a recent Qualcomm-underwritten conference to remind her audience that companies like hers face a dire shortage of university graduates in engineering. The urgent remedy she advocated was to raise the cap on visas for foreign-born engineers.

“’Although our industry and other high-tech industries have grown exponentially,’ Tornquist said, ‘our immigration system has failed to keep pace.’ The nation’s outdated limits and ‘convoluted green-card process,’ she said, had left firms like hers ‘hampered in hiring the talent that they need.’

“What Tornquist didn’t mention was that Qualcomm may then have had more engineers than it needed: Only a few weeks after her June 2 talk, the San Diego company announced that it would cut its workforce, of whom two-thirds are engineers, by 15%, or nearly 5,000 people.

“The mismatch between Qualcomm’s plea to import more high-tech workers and its efforts to downsize its existing payroll hints at the phoniness of the high-tech sector’s persistent claim of a “shortage” of U.S. graduates in the ‘STEM’ disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“As millions of students prepare this summer to begin their university studies, they’re being pressed to choose STEM fields, if only to keep America in the lead among its global rivals. ‘In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind,’ President Obama stated in 2010. He labeled the crisis ‘our generation’s Sputnik moment.’”

Hiltzik then succinctly chronicles the cyclic history of such crises—from the Space Race through the dot-com bubble, and he points out that relatively little historical attention has been paid to the large numbers of STEM graduates who were produced at the end of each cycle and then were unable to find employment matching their academic credentials.

Substantiating the point that I made about the Census Bureau statistics on STEM employment, Hiltzik quotes Hal Salzman of Rutgers University on the current over-supply of STEM graduates, noting that in this past year, the computer industry has eliminated 60,000 STEM jobs and the electronics industry another 20,000 STEM jobs.

So why is the tech industry lobbying for expanded immigration quotas for foreign workers with STEM backgrounds? Not surprisingly the answer is profits. Instead of “outsourcing” to foreign countries, tech companies, as well as those in other sectors with tech needs, are domestically trying to replace U.S. workers with less expensive imported foreign workers.

Here are several illustrations provided by Hiltzik:

“The industry’s push for more visas glosses over other issues. As we’ve reported, the majority of H-1B visas go not to marquee high-tech companies such as Google and Microsoft, but to outsourcing firms including the India-based giants Infosys and Tata. They’re not recruiting elite STEM graduates with unique skills, but contract workers to replace American technical employees—who often are required to train their foreign-born replacement as a condition of receiving their severance. This is the scandalous method of cost-cutting used by companies such as Southern California Edison, which outsourced the jobs of some 500 information technology employees, as we reported in February.

“For such companies, raising the visa limit is about exploiting a loophole in immigration law to save money—workers on these temporary visas are typically paid less than U.S. employees doing the same work, and more complaisant with American bosses because they’ll be deported if they lose their jobs. Companies such as Google and Qualcomm do benefit from H-1B visas, but on a lower scale than the outsourcing firms. In 2013, Qualcomm secured visa approvals for 909 new workers, according to government figures compiled by Computerworld. Infosys got 6,300.”

So, the one thing that is all too clear is that very little is what it has been made to seem.

Nonetheless, the most astonishing detail in Hiltzik’s article is that for all of the emphasis on the need to produce more STEM graduates, there is actually a great deal of ambiguity about even how many STEM jobs there now are in the U.S.:

“Nailing down demand and employment in STEM fields is difficult because there’s no single accepted definition for a STEM job. Estimates of the number of STEM jobs range from 5 million to 19 million, according to the National Science Foundation, depending on what’s included. Many are technical jobs that don’t require even a bachelor’s degree.”

We are living in a period of unprecedented data collection. So, when there is no clear data on a very topical issue, there is almost always a reason for the lack of data. We have seen this recently with the lack of data on police shootings, as we have seen it on other issues related to guns and gun violence.

In fact, one of the great ironies in Arnie Duncan’s tenure as Secretary of Education has been that, for all of his emphasis on data collection and assessment, there has been relatively little data collection on and assessment of the initiatives most enthusiastically promoted by him and his department—specifically, on the efficacy of standardized testing, of charter schools, of the deprofessionalization of teaching, and of the endlessly devised digital alternatives to conventional instruction. Instead, we have gotten a continuous stream of hype on “innovation” and “reform” before any studies have been done to validate the efficacy of most of the specific initiatives.

Hiltzik’s complete article is available at: http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-20150802-column.html#page=1

 

 

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