Is It Fair to Steer Students into STEM Disciplines Facing a Glut of Workers?

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The argument over whether or not there is a shortage of qualified STEM workers was replayed once more in a story this past week in a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled, “The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth.” Unfortunately, you need to be a subscriber to gain full access to the article, but I thought a few quotes from the usual suspects claiming there is a STEM crisis in the United States would be enlightening.

For example, there's Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which receives a lot of its funding from high-tech companies. ITIF vehemently insists that the STEM crisis is real and that anyone who says differently is hopelessly misguided and uninformed. Atkinson argued that, among other things, college students need to be channeled towards “more useful” majors.

“We should be making some value judgments on what kind of people we'll need for the nation to move forward...The distribution of degrees right now is entirely up to students. Shouldn't we be steering them into degree types that are of more value to society, such as computer science or engineering? The American tradition is one of hard-core pragmatism. We're at risk of losing that, and we're in trouble now in regards to competitiveness.”

Atkinson goes on to imply that IT workers in the U.S. will just have to get accustomed to lower wages given that, “Companies can go overseas for workers.” Of course, the ITIF is a strong supporter of expanding the H-1B visa program for its high-tech paymasters, which has helped erode STEM wages, especially for engineers. Additionally, Atkinson maintains that, “there will be work in IT for people with the right set of skills…[and] that lower wages probably won't keep them from accepting jobs.

I would bet, however, it might discourage many potential engineering and computer students from pursuing those careers, as it has in the past.

The Chronicle article goes on to quote Anthony Carnevale, a research professor and director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, who also insists that there is a STEM student/worker shortfall (but who also once in a moment of candor admitted that any college student with math talent would be “crazy to go into STEM”). However, in the Chronicle article, Carnevale reasons that even if there is a glut of STEM graduates moving into the workforce, that’s okay because STEM grads “do better than other types of majors and tend to move into management pretty quickly.”

There's nothing like hedging your bets.

In fact, Carnevale continues:

“Having experience in technical matters helps them [STEM students] land good non-STEM jobs. They might work in places like marketing or medical-device sales, where their technical backgrounds helped them get in.” 

Yep, get an EE or CS degree, and you too can strive to get a job shilling medical devices.  Sounds to me like a winning slogan for convincing high-school students to pursue engineering or similar STEM majors. Maybe Carnevale can make up posters and send them to all the high schools to put up in their science and math classrooms.

On another related note, last week I had the opportunity to attend a Congressional briefing hosted by IEEE-USA and the AFL-CIO (a federation of trade unions in the United States) on the impact of the H-1B visa program on the economy, innovation, and the workforce. The panel was moderated by Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and included Neeraj Gupta, CEO of Systems in MotionKaren Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tuffs University and editor and chief of IEEE Women in Engineering magazine; and Hal Salzman, professor of public Policy at Rutgers University. The briefing drew a standing-room only crowd of House of Representatives staffers.

Hira provided a quick overview of the current H-1B visa program, and highlighted the fact that no one knows (or tracks) exactly how many H-1B visa holders there are in the U.S. He estimated that the total is around 650 000, with most working in the high tech arena. Hira also reported that the program does not require U.S. companies to actively recruit U.S. workers before seeking out H-1B visa workers, and that company compliance with the H-1B visa requirements is only maintained through whistle blowers such as Jay Palmer, who exposed Indian outsourcing company Infosys’s rampant abuse of the program. Palmer was supposed to attend the briefing to describe his Infosys experience, but unfortunately, his flight was canceled.

Gupta, who came to the United States as a student, was hired under an H-1B, and later became a U.S. citizen, talked (ironically) of the difficulty he faces as the CEO of a growing IT services company competing against H-1B outsourcers. He emphasized that H-1B workers are hired by U.S. companies as well as Indian and other foreign outsourcing companies primarily to lower their labor costs using mostly high-tech workers with average skills. Gupta argued that the H-1B program needs to return to its original purpose, which was to bring the truly best and brightest from across the world, not just primarily India, to work in the United States. This is not likely to happen, since the world's truly “best and brightest” are not likely to sign up to be treated as high-tech “indentured servants” as many H-1B visa holders do.

Salzman spoke of the latest data on STEM graduates and jobs, reiterating that STEM programs turn out at least 50 percent more IT graduates every year than there are U.S. job openings. He also said that if the H-1B program is ramped up to the numbers that are being advocated (up from 85 000 to 185 000), that worker oversupply could possibly increase to the 90 percent mark or more. Salzman called attention to Georgetown University’s report earlier this year that showed recent information system majors had a 14.7 percent unemployment rate, the highest of the majors it tracks. Even contemporary computer science graduates were experiencing an 8.7 percent unemployment rate.

Well, there are always those jobs selling medical devices.

Panetta noted that expansion of the H-1B visa program has had the effect of keeping down the already small numbers of women and minorities getting computer science and computer engineering degrees, since the more visa holders there are, the fewer job opportunities are available for U.S. workers. She also noted that only a small proportion of H-1B visas is given to female STEM graduates, even though 40 percent of the STEM graduates in India are women (this is more than double the U.S. percentage, she said). Panetta also noted how U.S. STEM students are facing school loan debts which are discouraging many to pursue graduate studies, a problem many foreign STEM students don’t have.

You can read more about the H-1B briefing in a ComputerWorld story as well.

Coincidentally, a few hours after the panel briefing, House Speaker John A. Boehner announced that full immigration reform would not happen this year. Boehner wouldn’t indicate whether it might be looked into again in 2014. While it may look like the H-1B visa cap will remain at 85 000 for the foreseeable future, President Obama signaled yesterday that he is open to “piecemeal” immigration legislation. This means that the H-1B cap may in fact be raised sooner than later, which would make Facebook and other tech companies very happy.

However, with CIO’s indicating that a slowdown in IT hiring may be in store for 2014, there seems little need for raising the H-1B cap anytime soon if ever.

Photo: Getty Images

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