The Wall Street Journal published a story yesterday titled, “More Businesses Want Workers With Math or Science Degrees” that highlights a new STEM skills shortage study. The article states that:
Bayer Corp., the U.S. arm of the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG, is due to release a report this week showing that half of the recruiters from large U.S. companies surveyed couldn't find enough job candidates with four-year STEM degrees in a timely manner; some said that had led to more recruitment of foreigners.
The shortages were most acute in engineering and computer-related fields, the recruiters said. The survey, completed in August, included 150 recruiters from 117 companies, all on the Fortune 1000 list of large companies.
About two-thirds of the recruiters surveyed said their companies were creating more STEM positions than other types of jobs.
So, to be clear, half the recruiters in 117 companies (assuming no double counting of recruiters) say that they have trouble hiring STEM workers quickly enough. Oh my, that is terrible! Of course, left unsaid, half of the recruiters surveyed apparently aren't having any such difficulty in their hiring, which sort of undermines the notion that there is much of a shortage.
In addition, it's difficult to determine from the WSJ article exactly how much the recruiters were willing to offer in terms of salaries and benefits to those oh-so-hard-to-find STEM workers. Maybe those companies that are complaining about a STEM skill shortage should try emulating Netflix, which is willing pay a little bit extra to get the talent it needs. It doesn't seem to complain about a skills shortage.
Or maybe, as this new Ed. D. dissertation from the University of Pennsylvania reported, recruiters are having trouble because "employers have a requirement for experience for new [STEM] hires." The dissertation research found contrary to reports, there "was not a shortage of new STEM graduates in Ohio."
Furthermore, the recruiters' decision to recruit foreigners because they couldn't quickly find the right STEM skills in the United States has to be taken with a very large grain of salt as well. As Silicon Valley recruiting company Bright.com admitted over the summer, it could find only a handful of computer-related jobs in the Valley where a skills shortage that might justify hiring guest workers can legitimately be claimed to exist.
More details can be found in the Bayer press release and accompanying report which was disclosed during the Bayer-sponsored “debate” being held today in Washington, D.C. to discuss these “shortages” the corporate recruiters are supposedly having. From the skewed questions (e.g., Are unfilled STEM jobs bad for business?) asked the embarrassing small number of recruiters who bothered to answer the survey in the report, it is easy to see that the exercise was all about whipping up support for the notion that the STEM Crisis is not a myth (as I strongly contend) and that more government money needs to be committed to the efforts (of those on the debate panel) to eliminate the terrible STEM skills shortage plaguing the United States.
The survey results, by the way, have a +/- 8 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level.
Of course, recruiters and their employers have long been whining about students not having the right science and math skills, as can be seen in this previous Bayer report from 1997. Bayer should have just republished it with a 2013 date to save itself some time and money.
Interestingly, the most recent Bayer study and its findings sound very similar to a doom and gloom piece printed in American Airlines American Way magazine from 2003 in which was cited a projection by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the United States would be short 10 million workers by 2010. Funny, that shortage didn’t seem to have happened.
Furthermore, the American Way article quoted Norman Maas, at the time the North American senior vice president of human resources for German chemical company BASF, saying that he:
... figures that by 2010 he’ll have to replace about 75 percent of BASF Corporation’s 13 000 workers in North America. What he can’t figure is where he’s going to get them. Especially when it comes to finding large numbers of highly skilled chemical engineers and managers capable of overseeing a diverse, multilingual workforce.
As senior vice president of human resources for the $8.2 billion chemical company, Maas is not expecting an easy decade.
“The size of the pool gets smaller and smaller, and the demand for those skills gets bigger and bigger," Maas laments. "So you have more companies competing for a smaller and smaller group of talented people.”
Hmm … checking BASF’s annual report for North American in 2010 (pdf), the company listed 16 487 employees with a turnover of 11.2 billion euros (or about US $15.3 billion).
The 2010 BASF annual report doesn’t mention a skills shortage, but does note: “Like many companies, we are experiencing significant demographic shifts. Many of our employees are potentially approaching retirement; 'next generation' employees are entering the workforce with new expectations and ways of working; and ‘minorities’ are becoming majorities in the pools of talent coming out of colleges and universities and across our customer base. Faced with many changes coming together at the same time, we are taking advantage of once-in-a-generation opportunities to transform our workforce and gain competitive advantages.”
So, the dire problem that Maas was concerned with instead actually turned out to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for BASF; imagine that.
I expect that the vast majority of recruiters surveyed in the most recent Bayer report who claim a STEM skill shortage are buying into overly pessimistic spin on finding STEM skills just as Maas did. And of course, what better way to have a built in excuse if you are unsuccessful at hiring new STEM employees or to look like a hero if you are able to overcome the perils of such a dire shortage?
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.