Report urges rethink on demand for STEM expertise

The policy-making arm of the National Science Foundation last week poured a bucket of cold water onto the sometimes fiery debate about whether the United States faces a glut or a shortage of workers trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – typically known as the STEM fields.

While most of the disagreements focus on the supply and demand of the STEM workforce, a new report suggests that traditional definitions of STEM jobs and the numbers that go with them are outdated and irrelevant.

“The distinctions between STEM and non-STEM jobs in the workplace are beginning to blur,” says Dan Arvizu, chairman of the National Science Board, or NSB, a branch of the National Science Foundation, a federal agency.

A more meaningful discussion, he says, is whether the United States is building what it calls a "STEM-capable work force" and whether "all individuals have access to a high-quality education that includes STEM".

Based on the most recent federal data on science and engineering indicators, the report analyses the growing demand for STEM-related expertise across a broad cross-section of jobs and disciplines.

Among findings: Just 5.4 million workers held jobs classified as science and engineering occupations, but about 16.5 million workers in 2010 reported that their job required at least a bachelor degree level of expertise in science and engineering. Many of those jobs fell into non-STEM occupational categories such as sales, marketing and management.

Contested issue

The report also acknowledges a "highly contested policy issue" rooted in concerns about whether the United States faces a shortage of STEM workers.

A National Science Board report last year found that the United States was losing ground in the global research and development market, which is one reason STEM-related employers seek to ensure that they continue to rely on foreign-born STEM workers, many of them educated at US universities.

Data released earlier this month by the National Science Foundation's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics show a 7.9% increase in full-time foreign graduate student enrolment in science and engineering programmes in 2013. Among US citizens, similar enrolments among US citizens declined for the second year in a row.

President Barack Obama, in an executive order last November that focused primarily on immigration reforms for undocumented workers, requested that the Department of Homeland Security find a way to allow foreign students to remain in the United States for a longer period of time after they graduate to work.

"Are we a nation that educates the world's best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us? Or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs here, create businesses here, create industries right here in America?" Obama said at the time.


Those questions feed into other controversies, including whether foreign graduate students are taking places at universities that otherwise might have gone to US students, and about whether foreign-born workers are similarly displacing or replacing US workers, often accepting lower wages.

At a Senate committee hearing last month entitled "Immigration Reforms Needed to Protect Skilled American Workers" Rutgers University Professor Hal Salzman said legislative proposals designed to make it easier for foreigners to work in the United States would likely have the added effect of distorting the US higher education system.

Already, he said, some university masters programmes "have grown to target foreign students as part of a business model to generate revenue rather than provide a high-quality, graduate-level education”.

The NSB report out last week aims to "provide nuance and context, not solve or take sides in the debate", says Arvizu, who also is director and chief executive at the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Still, the debate continues.

Jonathan Rothwell, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said the Board's report, which draws from his 2013 study, "acknowledges the diversity of occupations that require STEM skills and the varied pathways to acquiring those skills. That has tremendous implications for how we think about education and training policy at all ages."

Rothwell's one complaint, he says, is that the report was "too neutral" in that it failed to directly address what he called "false claims" by a handful of scholars who say there is no shortage of STEM workers.

One of them, University of California-Davis Professor Norm Matloff, says the Board's report is hardly neutral. Brookings, for example, receives financial support from Microsoft. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, another think tank consulted by the Board, receives support from Google and IBM, among other companies.

"By relying on industry-funded sources, the NSB is by definition taking sides," says Matloff. "I think it's outrageous that a federal government agency works in this manner."