There is a widely held perception that the U.S. faces a significant shortage of STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – graduates, and that this shortfall is bound to hold dire consequences for America in the global economy. Professor Hal Salzman of Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy disagrees.

Salzman, also a senior fellow at the Bloustein School’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, finds supply appears to be far greater than demand. Many representatives of  STEM-related industries allege that American students lack the training, experience or motivation to fill thousands of positions they claim are available – both assertions are not supported by the evidence, Salzman finds.

Hal Salzman
Professor Hal Salzman

Salzman presented his views on March 12 in Washington, D.C., during a public debate co-hosted by the National Academies’ Issues in Science and Technology, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, the Economic Policy Institute and the Heldrich Center. He recently spoke to Rutgers Today about the debate sparked by his recent article on this topic in Issues in Science and Technology and a report for the Economic Policy Institute.

Rutgers Today: Is there a shortage of STEM workers in the U.S. economy?

Hal Salzman: We can find no evidence of any shortages in most STEM fields. Typically when employers have a hard time finding workers, they increase wages. In the one area where there truly were not enough graduates to meet hiring demands, in petroleum engineering, wages have risen dramatically and the number of graduates more than doubled in just a few years. In other areas, such as IT, average wage levels today are the same as they were when Bill Clinton was president. If employers truly need more workers in these fields, we find it puzzling that they don’t use the market and raise wages; all available evidence suggests that students do respond to market signals. It may be that it is more an issue of cost rather than supply, and Congress has been providing a lower-cost pool of tech guest workers; it is understandable that expanding the pool of lower-cost guest workers would be preferable to paying more for workers already in the U.S., if given the option.

Rutgers Today: Is the U.S. education system producing an adequate supply of STEM graduates with the requisite STEM education?

Hal Salzman: When we consider the supply for the science and engineering workforce, which is about 5 to 8 percent of the overall workforce, we find that the colleges graduate about twice the number of science and engineering students each year as hired into those job. Even in fields such as engineering and computer science, the number of graduates is 50 percent greater than the number hired. At the secondary school level, there are certainly significant educational problems for certain areas and students, but overall, U.S. students are completing more math and science than ever before – over the past 20 years, about 50 percent more complete subjects such as chemistry, algebra II/trigonometry, biology and physics – and test score performance shows steady increases for all students. In terms of actual supply of high performing students in science and math, the U.S. produces the lion’s share of these students in the world.

Rutgers Today: How does high-skill immigration affect the STEM labor market and the domestic supply of STEM talent?

Hal Salzman: Unfortunately the issue of immigration has been confused with guest worker programs. While a broad immigration policy is at the heart of this nation’s success – socially, economically – it is quite different from the current guest worker programs that bring in young workers targeted to a few industries, mostly IT, on a temporary basis and at lower wages.  Naturally, employers tend to prefer the lower cost option for many of the more routine work positions, and even some of the more specialized areas. Our estimate is that currently guest workers are hired for about two-thirds of all entry-level positions in IT.  Although a balanced immigration policy can strengthen the nation, a targeted guest worker program can undermine the STEM workforce by making it harder for graduates of U.S. colleges (both native and immigrant) to find jobs at good wages and to have stable careers.

Rutgers Today: How can the U.S. compete globally, when other nations are rapidly improving their STEM industries?

Hal Salzman: There is an unfortunate premise in science and technology policy that the world is zero-sum – that China or India’s achievements in these areas are a threat to the U.S. Moreover, it’s a case of generals fighting the last war – and the cold war in particular when we thought that the Soviet Union’s scientific advancement would imperil the security of the U.S. Well, the Soviet Union, and later the Japanese, did produce large numbers of engineers and scientists but we know that did little to help their long-term economic performance. The supply of scientists and engineers does not assure high economic performance, nor does another nation’s improvements threaten the U.S. China, for example, is graduating many more engineers because they need them to build roads, buildings, and infrastructure. The U.S. does not have nearly the scale of building that requires large numbers of engineers. In addition, science is increasingly global and having a greater pool of scientists around the world can only help everyone. Although it would be great to have U.S. scientists be the ones to discover the cure for cancer, this country, and the world, will benefit much more if, by having more scientists in China or India, the discovery is made sooner rather than later.