The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage

American students need to improve in math and science—but not because there's a surplus of jobs in those fields.
Michael Yarish/Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc.

Everyone knows that the United States has long suffered from widespread shortages in its science and engineering workforce, and that if continued these shortages will cause it to fall behind its major economic competitors. Everyone knows that these workforce shortages are due mainly to the myriad weaknesses of American K-12 education in science and mathematics, which international comparisons of student performance rank as average at best.

Such claims are now well established as conventional wisdom. There is almost no debate in the mainstream. They echo from corporate CEO to corporate CEO, from lobbyist to lobbyist, from editorial writer to editorial writer. But what if what everyone knows is wrong? What if this conventional wisdom is just the same claims ricocheting in an echo chamber?

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:

Science and engineering occupations are at the leading edge of economic competitiveness in an increasingly globalized world, and science and engineering workforces of sufficient size and quality are essential for any 21st century economy to prosper. These professional workforces also are crucial for addressing challenges such as international security, global climate change, and domestic and global health. While they therefore are of great importance, college graduates employed in science and engineering occupations (as defined by the National Science Foundation) actually comprise only a small fraction of the workforce.

A compelling body of research is now available, from many leading academic researchers and from respected research organizations such as the National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation, and the Urban Institute. No one has been able to find any evidence indicating current widespread labor market shortages or hiring difficulties in science and engineering occupations that require bachelors degrees or higher, although some are forecasting high growth in occupations that require post-high school training but not a bachelors degree. All have concluded that U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more. Were there to be a genuine shortage at present, there would be evidence of employers raising wage offers to attract the scientists and engineers they want. But the evidence points in the other direction: Most studies report that real wages in many—but not all—science and engineering occupations have been flat or slow-growing, and unemployment as high or higher than in many comparably-skilled occupations.  

Because labor markets in science and engineering differ greatly across fields, industries, and time periods, it is easy to cherry-pick specific specialties that really are in short supply, at least in specific years and locations. But generalizing from these cases to the whole of U.S. science and engineering is perilous. Employment in small but expanding areas of information technology such as social media may be booming, while other larger occupations languish or are increasingly moved offshore. It is true that high-skilled professional occupations almost always experience unemployment rates far lower than those for the rest of the U.S. workforce, but unemployment among scientists and engineers is higher than in other professions such as physicians, dentists, lawyers, and registered nurses, and surprisingly high unemployment rates prevail for recent graduates even in fields with alleged serious “shortages” such as engineering (7.0 percent), computer science (7.8 percent) and information systems (11.7 percent). 

Over time, new technologies, price changes, or sharp shifts in the labor market can create rapid rises in demand in a particular occupation. When that happens, the evidence shows that the market seems to adjust reasonably well. Entire occupations that were previously unattractive and declining, such as petroleum engineering in the 1980s and 1990s, have rather suddenly become attractive and high-paid—due to increased energy prices and new technologies for domestic extraction of oil and gas. Others, such as those linked to manufacturing and construction—industries in which well over half of all engineers are employed—have declined over the same period. Surprisingly, some of the largest and most heavily financed scientific fields, such as biomedical research, are among those with the least attractive career prospects, as a recent blue-ribbon advisory committee reported to the Director of the National Institutes of Health. Biomedical Ph.D.s are unusually lengthy and often require additional years of postdoctoral training, yet after completion those with such degrees experience labor market demand and remuneration that are relatively low.

Labor markets for scientists and engineers also differ geographically. Employer demand is far higher in a few hothouse metropolitan areas than in the rest of the country, especially during boom periods. Moreover recruitment of domestic professionals to these regions may be more difficult than in others when would-be hires discover that the remuneration employers are offering does not come close to compensating for far higher housing and other costs. According to the most recent data from the National Association of Realtors, Silicon Valley (metro San Jose) has the highest median house prices in the country, at $775,000—nearly four times higher than the national median.

Far from offering expanding attractive career opportunities, it seems that many, but not all, science and engineering careers are headed in the opposite direction: unstable careers, slow-growing wages, and high risk of jobs moving offshore or being filled by temporary workers from abroad. Recent science Ph.D.s often need to undertake three or more additional years in low-paid and temporary “postdoctoral” positions, but even then only a minority have realistic prospects of landing a coveted tenure-track academic position.

Presented by

Michael S. Teitelbaum is a senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. He is the author of Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.

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