Myth of STEM Shortage

Gun news is pretty thin on the ground today. Via Instapundit, I noticed this article about how there is no real shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workers:

The truth is that there is little credible evidence of the claimed widespread shortages in the U.S. science and engineering workforce. How can the conventional wisdom be so different from the empirical evidence? There are of course many complexities involved that cannot be addressed here. The key points, though, are these …

If you work in a STEM field, I’d highly recommend it. Having worked in the STEM industry for a number of years, I can tell you that if you’re a chemist, at least in my local job market, it’s tough to find jobs. Big Pharma isn’t running large chemistry labs anymore, having shipped most of those functions overseas to places like China and India. There’s still jobs for talented medicinal chemists, but bench chemistry is done almost entirely by overseas firms. Engineering and Information Technology jobs have also had to deal with the outsourcing bug. But I don’t think that really represents the whole picture of the job market, and the real factors are beyond soundbites or short articles.

In IT, at least in my local market, there really is a shortage of talented people. They are tough to find, and there is a lot of chaff to beat through before you can get at the wheat. The article does hint on what I think part of the issue is: the boom/bust cycle. When there are booms in STEM and related fields, the rising pay and opportunity attracts a lot of people into the field who honestly don’t belong in it. They can get hired in boom years because companies are desperate to fill jobs, and since they can’t find good people fast enough, or just can’t afford them, they end up settling. When I graduated from college, it was the height of the dot com boom, and they would hire anyone that could spell “Unix.”

And then comes the bust, and a lot of folks who never belonged in the field to begin with, end up washing out of the field, enduring long periods of unemployment, and/or having to take less pay. It does seem to go in a cyclical fashion, and STEM fields seem to have a particularly harsh business cycle compared to other industries. I think the issue is not so much that there’s a shortage of STEM workers overall, but that there’s a shortage of STEM workers who really belong in the field. The boom cycles that bring a lot of unqualified people into the field tend to make the bust cycles deeper and more painful.

22 thoughts on “Myth of STEM Shortage”

  1. My brother teaches in the STEM field. Computer engineering. They have Government contract and had the school promise that they would get jobs. It is a year program for the cyber and the students do have the money to complete and most of the students don’t have the ability to do the program and courses.

    At the Job Fairs there are no jobs suitable for these students. Some of the students have the free phones which are smart phones but are sleeping in their cars.

    This is in Maryland where we have good tech industries.
    However the big firms really like the cheap labor from India. The Indian tech people are well schooled and smart and work for 20%- 50 % less than Americans.

    There are a lot of experienced people available but they have homes and mortgages and can’t work for 20-40 K a year.This a mature industry and the jobs are not there in the numbers in this economic depression for the last 6 years

    1. Yeah. I think the H1B program is awful, but not because I think immigration is awful, but because the program is set up in a way as to artificially depress their wages, and thus depress everyone’s wages. If someone is qualified they ought to be given a visa that lets them change jobs easily. I don’t think Indians are any different than other groups. Some of them are good, and a lot of them are very bad and don’t really belong in the field. If they could compete on the open market, the good ones would get expensive, and the bad ones would probably leave the field and go home.

      1. H1B program is essentially a mild form of slave labor. Every year, those on H1B visas are told they’re taking a pay cut. If they refuse, they lose their job and are forced to vacate the company.

        A simple change, of putting the H1B visa in the hand of the individual instead of the importing company would fix most of the problems. After 1 year committment, they should be free to seek employment. Not held hostage to their visa.

        But all of this is done to push down wages. Government contracting world, .gov will pay a $140K while a worker will earn about $50K-$60K. Don’t ask me whose pockets the rest of that $$$ goes into. But yes, it is rather disgusting.

        It’s starting to get ridiculous how much big business has control of policy. And how little checks and balances and protections our government is supposed to enact are being done.

        Now we’re witness one of the most heinous and corrupt companies in America – Comcast, about to expand their monopoly further.

        Ironically, while costs have gone down on the technology front. I am stuck with an internet bill that went from $35/month to $70/month in half a decade.

        I can’t see these abuses continuing without the damn bursting.

  2. Aero engineer here. And tis very true that our job market is very cyclical. Also true is that down cycles flush out people who didn’t need to be there to begin with.

  3. Software developer here. Difference is I have 22 years of experience in the field and I have never been unemployed.

    I can tell you in IT that quick-and-dirty courses don’t cut it and I came here on an H1B in the 90s. I understand the meaning of the words “indentured servitude”.

    It is entirely possible to get employed in the IT industry. The problem is knowing what employers are looking for, develop skills beyond the classroom and get some practical experience. Mind you, you’ll be chasing junior or internship positions initially but that is the key. Once you’re in that door and spent a year listening, asking questions and absorbing all the knowledge you can find, you’ll easily be able to move on. Software development is a field where a piece of paper is not even necessary for entry in the face of talent or experience.

    FYI, I live in Maryland and work in Northern Virginia. $20-40K year might be help desk where I am at. Entry level is $55K+ and that is low by industry standards. After a couple of years, $65-75K is quite doable and well into the six figures if you stick with it for 10 years.

    I’m happy to provide guidance to wannabes in my field. A lot of it depends on people being willing to apply themselves independently. What a lot of people looking to enter the STEM field, especially on the “Technology” side, is the fact that it is a hard field. Not physically but the mental demands and learning requirements necessary for survival in it are something a lot of teachers and schools do not talk about. There’s a reason people talented in this field find themselves in the top 5% of national income earners and it isn’t because it is an easy job.

      1. Perhaps Clayton. I’m 41. My mind and speed is still is as sharp as the day I was 18. Actually been doing this since I was 8 so my experience may not be typical. I know more than a few 40ish software folks that fall into “rockstar” category status. Maybe I’ve been lucky I’ve not experienced any serious age discrimination. I also plan to retire from my current firm 15-20 years hence (not ridiculous, long-term loyalty and longevity is a corporate trait at my employer) so I may thankfully never have to face that wall.

    1. Actually the STEM courses and A + is just to get credentialed. The field is now requiring credentials to get employed and most students are just going to go into help desks.
      There are a lot of engineers that lost jobs in MD . Because they were project managers and getting the high pay. The firms were getting rid of the men in their 50’s to get rid of high cost labor and benefits. Some of these men are in the A+ courses to get the credentials and they are aceing the course. The young men don’t have the math or habits to get through the courses or the ability to last without income for year course program.

      HIB really does depress the labor cost. If the HIB talent demands higher pay , The employers can get another for cheaper. So the system does not level out at high salaries. Now if the people are lucky to get employed by NSA or the federal government they start at 45-55K and go up quickly.

      There has been a lot of downsizing in the military / tech industry even in MD.

      Really this is not a recession but has been a depression with a lot of redefining the employment numbers. Only federal government has been truly insulated. The local governments got the stimulus money but that ran out 2 years ago. So they are now retracting. Universities are losing students. Lots of student during the recession but now those students have run out of money and leaving school. Dropping enrollment means the community colleges and universities are losing income.

      The military firms have been downsizing since Obama came into office and really are taking a hit now.

      So there are qualified people out there, but are not credentialed. But these experienced people refuse to work for entry level money. HIB will work for entry level money

      1. Because its tough to work for entry level money when you have 10-20 years of experience, a mortgage and a family to feed.

        Worse, it’s hard to be competitive, when you have a family and a long commute. And are competing against a 25 year old new graduate who is hog wild on the latest technologies. Doesn’t have to worry about anything but drinking beer on the weekend. They’re energized, not burned out, and have far more free time.

        How does a 40 year old with a family compete and stay current with technology against that? It’s just not really possible.


  4. I worked in IT for about 10 years – technical writer and PM for that big software company in Redmond. I agree with a lot of the article – we endured the poor efforts of a lot of substandard workers there. H1B writers with English as a third language. Developers who really had no business there. I got plenty sick of the ineptitude, the decision by management to basically force out locals with more than about 10 years of experience, and other politics – so I left and went back to being a geologist, where I’m much happier.

    I also have a 50-something friend who’s had a terrible time staying employed over the past 10 years. He’s a civil engineer, a scientist, and also has a background in IT, with experience in all three fields. His issue? I think once he got a taste of the six-figure salary during the boom years, he’s been incapable of dialing it back to current reality. Times have changed, and the $120K you made with the big IT shops in the mid-90’s doesn’t translate to today’s market. Unfortunately, he didn’t see the light until more recently, and has now been unemployed long enough that his resume is pretty stale – I feel for my friend, ’cause he’s not very employable in either IT or his chosen scientific field.

    1. Pay inflexibility is a big part of much of the problem for older folks. When my former employer went belly up, I had to accept less pay. 30% less, in fact, to avoid having to find a management position at another big, bureaucratic company, which to be honest, I’d rather beat myself over the head with a 2×4 than do.

      I decided to try something a bit more entrepreneurial. Speaking both in real and nominal terms, I’m making less money than I made when I was 26. But I could take the salary hit because I never treated my dot com era salary with the former employer as a permanent condition. It was play money. So when it came time to take a big hit because I wanted to try something novel, I could do it. I’m not exactly enjoying making less — I’d love to be making six figures again — but I always kept things such that I could live on much much less money than I was making, and that was very important to me getting back on my feet, and at a job I’m happy with.

      I think the best advice anyone could give a young person heading into this industry is to understand it’s very cyclical, and to avoid any financial commitments that will make you a slave to your current salary.

      1. It’s not so easy though…I took a big cut and bout of unemployment during the Great Recession. I’ve recently got back up to a grade that I’m comfortable with.

        I have a slightly above modest lifestyle. We own a $120,000 fixer upper house. Two vehicles, minivan and a budget Nissan Versa commuter car.

        Last year we added basic cable TV for the first time in years I maybe get to go out to eat every other week. But between medical costs, increased food costs, pre-school, etc. It’s still hard to run in the black.

        Truth is, that even a $100K income for a family today is merely the equivalent of $35K in 1975. Our costs have skyrocketed, but our pay really hasn’t kept up.

        We’re being told that we need to get used to a tightened belt. But then we see these CEOs of corrupt and sleazy companies constantly get golden parachutes of tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. Usually for failing to do their job.

        And yes, I’m right with the OWS, enough is enough. I’m for capitalism and not opposed to wealthy. But when Apple & GE are allowed to hide billions from taxes. When CEOs are laying off ten thousand workers but giving themselves hundreds of millions in bonuses. It reaches a breaking point. Enough….

        We need some laws and regulation to bring things back into balance. And frankly, I think a very simplified tax code to be the solution. No loopholes, just simple math equations.

  5. I did software engineering (mostly java) for 8 years, then left for 6 years to become a lawyer. I came back about two years ago and I’ve been doing great salary wise, as if I never left.

    If you have the talent for programming, it’s really not hard to find work in this industry. Maybe things will change as I get into my 50s or 60s or if I wandered into a dull job and let my skills rot, but so far no complaints. It’s definitely a million times better than being a lawyer, that’s for sure.

  6. Organic chemist here. 100% in agreement regarding the job situation for chemists. I’m just starting out in my career and feel lucky just to have a chemistry job, and not be stuck in grad school/post-doc/purgatory waiting for the economy to ramp up again. Some of my coworkers around my age have left the industry and gone to medical school.

    I’ve always wondered what happens to the purity levels of the local illicit narcotics when a big Pharma research site closes its doors.

  7. I did IT consulting in Chicago for 5 years during the late 90s in Chicago for a mix of companies, including Ameritech and a bunch of decent sized firms. I remember running into exactly ONE Oracle DBA who wasn’t on a H1B visa.

    The problem isn’t a shortage of US STEM grads, it’s a shortage of US grads who will work for wages that qualify you for food stamps.

    1. That’s your problem right there. I briefly tried IT consulting and found it to be a complete shitfest.

      The typical situation is you’ll have like 30 people on a project, with at most 5 of them actually being useful and 25 of them being seat warmers whose job is to basically justify the ridiculously inflated billable hours. The seat warmers will make 30-40k a year and typically be kids fresh out of college, housewives, liberal arts majors or h1b indians, etc and they’ll leave after 6-18 months. But the big consulting firm is billing them out at 100-200 an hour and pocketing the difference. They basically do CMM levels out the ass and exaggerate the risk and effort of every project so the client doesn’t get wise.

      The work also tended to be dull and the culture would quickly scare off anyone with any sort of talent or drive.The late 90s were full of year 2k nonsense as well, which drew all of the low performers out of the woodwork.

      Anyway, IT consulting is the bottom as far as tech careers trajectories go. Everyone there is either starting out or washing out.

  8. I work in devops and skilled talent is in demand. If your “product” is politics, then we have no use for you regardless of age. We just brought in a contractor in his early 60’s and he is wonderful. Our department is very demanding and our interviews are more like oral exams and firing squads. It scares off the boobs and goofs.

    Outsourcing IT ops jobs is cyclical in the time it takes for management to realize the foreign workers suck and are generally useless. Management will get a bug in its ass to “cut costs”, lay off the bottom 10% (and a bunch of people they shouldn’t), and hire a bunch of job hoppers from India. They will suck for six months. Turn over is high, but the core people will develop some skill. Management will then send teams over to train them and discover all sorts of headaches. By the time management does the accounting, they realize they spent too much money and they could have had a better result had they kept everything in house. They’ll cut back their India workers, hire a bunch of Americans, and it starts all over again.

    The key is to be on important teams, never be in the bottom 20% at review time, avoid politics, and be proficient. If you cannot do that, then good luck!

    1. Just to be clear: useless foreign workers are the ones that are hired in batches. Some are decent worker bees that get 5% of the work done; the rest will leave over time. There are always a few good ones and they do the vast majority of work. It is important to identify and cultivate them. Sometimes they are invited to work here in the states. Our department is very demanding and scares off those who want to coast along. The few who demand responsibility are given it and good results are expected. Unfortunately, many foreign cultures do not embrace this idea.

  9. First of all, most STEM isn’t IT. So while I see a lot of IT comments here, know that they are very unrepresentative, IMHO.

    As a practicing chemical engineer for 20+ years, who migrated to law, I’ve seen the cycles come and go in a variety of fields. Today’s hot area is tomorrows unemployment fodder. The era of basic manufacturing and smokestack industries has all been outsourced where labor and brains are cheaper. The US economy is hollow. Nothing is safe. If we hear calls for increased emphasis on STEM, it’s likely being heralded by companies that want to drive down their labor costs at the expense of current US citizens and residents. The other prong they use is immigration reform … want to greatly expand the H1B programs.

    Anyone who thinks they are going to survive or thrive on just their college degrees is irresponsibly optimistic or has been lucky in their timing and choice of field. My advice: learn a marketable skill that doesn’t require a corporate employer. Plumbing, welding, electrician. Something that allows you to truly work for yourself, in worst case scenario. There are no guarantees.

    The real bonus with a STEM education is that it makes you more practical, more logical, more realistic, less gullible, less easily bamboozled by the powers that be, when they start selling their BS to the public. But it sure isn’t a guarantee of employment.

  10. I can’t remember if this point was made in the original article, or in one associated with it called “Why the S in STEM is Overrated” (again, I can’t remember if it’s linked directly, or via some “You May Also Like” feature–I’m too lazy at the moment to check), but one point made was that not all STEM majors are created alike. Some are more employable than others.

    It isn’t just the “S”, either: I’m Pure M, and when I was working on my doctorate, I wasn’t thinking about employability at all. Indeed, I was planning on becoming a professor at some point! But now that I’m in computer programming, wishing I /could/ be a mathematician, I can’t help but wonder how I can turn my pure abstract commutative algebra with hefty portions of topology on the side, into something profitable.

    Sure, there’s “Big Data”, which may or may not be just a fad, but that seems to be glorified statistics with machine learning thrown in for good measure…and also a big concern for privacy advocates. When I’m working 40+ hours a week, have family obligations, and have a bit of an aversion to staying up late at night studying (largely because I fear migraines, but also because I often stay up late taking care of family duties, and sometimes just by “blowing off steam”)…it’s hard to see how I can fit in time to learn these new things that I’m not even sure yet if I want to do…

    There’s a third factor, now that I think of it: you can’t predict what everyone is going to do. When I was starting college, I remember learning that in a few years, there was going to be a HUGE demand for mathematicians, because they were coming up to retirement age. By the time I graduated, however, I had learned that the demand didn’t happen: all those mathematicians who were approaching retirement age, for whatever reason, decided not to retire early!

    It’s dangerous to learn skills for marketability alone, because markets can be so fickle. (At the same time, though, it’s foolish to ignore marketability altogether as well, because that Communications major isn’t likely to be all that helpful, even in the best of times…)

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