Does U.S. have a high-tech worker shortage?

Posted: April 13, 2012

No one would dispute the importance of basic math, science, and technology literacy in today's world.

But is the United States experiencing a dangerous shortage of scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical talent? The answer is complicated.

"Despite the clear demand for STEM talent by domestic employers, the U.S. is failing to produce an ample supply of workers to meet the growing needs of both STEM and non-STEM employers," posits a report being released Friday by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Unemployed electrical engineer Jonathan Mercado isn't seeing it from his perch. "I think it's a lie," said Mercado, a 2010 Temple University graduate who had an internship at Lockheed Martin.

"I went into electrical engineering," he said, "because technology is always advancing. I thought if I studied for that, there'd always be a position for me."

Mercado said his neighbors, many of whom work for Lockheed Martin in New Jersey, have tried to help him get a job, but there have been layoffs and they are worried about losing their jobs.

Semiconductor engineer Darin Wedel of Fort Worth, Texas, isn't seeing it, either. Three years ago, Wedel lost his job at Texas Instruments. In January, his wife chatted about her husband with President Obama using the Google+Hangout feature. She asked why foreign engineers were being brought in to do work her husband could do.

Obama said his advisers told him that the United States didn't have enough high-tech engineers to meet its needs.

"It seems not even the leader of our country can get [Darin] a job," Jennifer Wedel told a McClatchy Newspapers reporter.

It's easy enough to find stories and reports to illustrate both points of view.

Data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers support the idea that there is a demand for graduates with STEM degrees. They are the most likely to get jobs and also the most likely to be paid the most.

However, the share of STEM doctorates awarded to domestic students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities has declined from 74 percent in 1985 to 54 percent in 2006, according to the Joint Economic Committee's Friday report.

The report also shows that average math and science test scores for U.S. 15-year-olds fall at or below international averages among nations with the highest gross domestic products.

In math, for example, the U.S. average 2009 score was 487, lower than Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and Germany.

"We're not as dominant as we used to be," said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who chairs the committee. "Some of the talent and the skills and the know-how have gone overseas."

Casey sees the situation as part of a larger problem. The United States, he said, needs a tax strategy that encourages manufacturing growth in this country and that also incentivizes companies to keep research and development dollars here.

Research and manufacturing provide opportunities for STEM jobs. "The tax code has made it easy for companies to locate overseas," he said.

A National Science Foundation study released in January showed that the United States lost 28 percent of its high-tech manufacturing jobs in the last decade. Also, while this country still does more research and development, U.S. companies are growing their research divisions abroad at a faster rate than they are growing them here.

Another issue is that jobs for highly educated scientists may be financially unappealing, said Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer and senior adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, who has testified before Congress on this issue.

Much science research is conducted by postdoctorate students, paid on a grant-by-grant basis. "If they get a job, it might be on soft money that could disappear in a year or two," he said. "They are in a holding pattern, hoping for a career path."

In some ways, it's a chicken-and-egg issue. Does job demand create incentives for educational institutions to produce more STEM-qualified workers or does the presence of more qualified workers cause companies to invest and create jobs?

"It's hard to be precise about that," Casey said. "But we're at a tipping point [with life sciences]. We're still the undisputed champion of the world, but that's at risk if we don't continue to make the right investments."


Contact Jane M. Von Bergen

at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Follow her "Jobbing" blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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