This article originally appeared at Forbes.com. See EMSI’s Forbes site here.
In April, the Economic Policy Institute called into question something that’s been viewed as fact by many for years — that there’s a critical shortage of workers for science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields. In a study of job, wage, and higher education trends, EPI concluded that “the United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations.”
EPI’s report garnered loads of media attention, and it triggered sharp responses from those on the other side of the STEM workforce shortage debate. Ian Hathaway, an economic advisor to tech lobby group Engine Advocacy, wrote that “publicly available government data and common sense reject the notion that there are ‘too many’ high-tech workers in the United States.” Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce made the case that while the country may be producing enough STEM majors for every job, the demand for STEM competencies “far exceeds the proportion of strictly defined STEM jobs that exist.”
This is a timely, important discussion, and not just for educators who train future STEM workers and businesses who hire them. It also cuts to the center of the proposed immigration reform being debated in Congress, part of which would allow companies to bring more foreign workers to the U.S. on temporary H-1B visas (usually at lower wages than American workers) to help offset the purported dearth of available tech workers.
One of key arguments that there is indeed a shortage — and there’s compelling evidence both ways — is the immense number of STEM graduates who are foreign born. More than 40 percent of the 25,000 STEM Ph.D.’s awarded in 2011 went to nonresident students, according to an EMSI analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics. And only an estimated 30 percent of all foreign students end up staying on temporary work visas. (For engineering Ph.D. grads, the National Science Foundation estimates 60 percent stay.)
Across the board, the number of foreign-born students getting tech-oriented degrees is staggering: One out of every five engineering graduates from American universities are foreign born. At the master’s degree level, the ratio is closer to one out of every two. And 56 percent of engineering doctoral grads in 2011 were from abroad.
The more advanced the education level, the higher probability that STEM graduates are foreign born.
This has ramifications on the pipeline of workers into STEM fields, even if — as The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissman noted — the job market for young science Ph.D.’s is lousy. With so many STEM graduates leaving the country or in green card limbo, businesses have a smaller pool of qualified applicants to draw from.
Consider a few more numbers. The U.S. produced roughly 580,000 STEM graduates across all education levels* in 2011. Just over 115,000 of these were at the graduate level (mostly in engineering, biological sciences, and computer and IT). But nearly half of these advanced grads are foreign born, so the number of young, new workers who stay on U.S. soil is smaller than it seems on the surface.
STEM grads far outpace EMSI’s estimated job openings for engineers, technicians, math and science workers, and others in the high-tech workforce. In seven core STEM fields (see the table below), the U.S. has slightly more than seven million estimated jobs, with more than 300,000 job openings expected for 2012-2013.
|SOC||Description||2013 Jobs||2012-2013 Job Openings||Median Hourly Earnings|
|Source: QCEW Employees, Non-QCEW Employees & Self-Employed - EMSI 2013.2 Class of Worker|
|15-2000||Mathematical Science Occupations||130,443||8,202||$37.00|
|17-3000||Drafters, Engineering Technicians, and Mapping Technicians||721,598||23,049||$24.64|
|19-4000||Life, Physical, and Social Science Technicians||358,378||17,704||$20.29|
Still, as Georgetown’s Carnevale wrote, STEM graduates “embody a set of competencies that are demanded in the private sector as well.” So even if only half of STEM grads are getting jobs in STEM fields, as the EPI report suggests, their skills are valued elsewhere.
*EMSI’s STEM definition included eight top-level programs: agriculture, agriculture operations, and related sciences; computer and information sciences and support services; engineering; engineering technologies and engineering-related fields; biological and biomedical sciences; mathematics and statistics; physical sciences; and science technologies/technicians.
Data shown in this post comes from Analyst, our web-based labor market data and analysis tool. For more information on EMSI, contact Josh Wright (firstname.lastname@example.org). Follow us on Twitter @DesktopEcon. Illustration by Mark Beauchamp.