Ron Hira, a scholar at Howard University who studies labor and technology, has been one of the most vocal skeptics about shortages in the informational technology fields. He argues that employers want to saturate the labor market with foreign employees— who are here on work visas and typically earn less than their American counterparts—with the goal of, driving down wages in the IT sector. Others have argued the recent rash of layoffs at tech companies belies concerns there’s a worker shortage in that sector.
STEM skeptics have their detractors, including Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who has written that Hira and others are motivated by “an agenda of redistribution” that boosts the wages of all workers.
Atkinson has also argued that without warnings of worker shortages, public policy to improve STEM outcomes will lag. “If you don’t say there’s a shortage, you don’t drive improvement,” he said in 2015 during a debate with STEM-shortage skeptics.
Other studies show that while information-technology jobs in the future will largely require a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent of jobs won’t, suggesting that a debate around the link between college and jobs may tell an incomplete picture about the STEM workforce landscape.
But even among those critical of the idea there’s a skills shortage, scholars like Teitelbaum believe the U.S. education system could do more to educate students in the sciences. Indeed, national figures suggest computing isn’t as widely taught as more traditional K-12 courses. A small fraction of U.S. high schools offer their students the Advanced Placement class for computer science—4,310 out of the roughly 37,000 high schools in the nation in 2015. By comparison, students took biology, chemistry, and U.S. history AP courses in 9,000, 11,000, and 13,000 schools, respectively. And while roughly 49,000 students took the AP computer-science exam, more than 370,000 sat for biology and chemistry (470,000 for U.S. history).
There’s a diversity problem among AP computer-science students, too. Last year’s crop of test-takers were overwhelmingly male (78 percent) and just 13 percent were either black or Latino. In nine states not one black student took the test, Education Week calculated. (A review of 2014 test data indicates biology, chemistry, and physics B—the most popular of the several physics AP tests—had higher rates of black and Latino test-takers.)
Some data suggests studying computer science in high school can lead to a major in the field once students enter higher education. In 2012, the College Board, the maker of the AP program, released data suggesting that students who took the computer-science AP course were six to 10 times more likely to study the field in college.
Megan Smith said that in addition to funding computer-science education, the White House initiative would disseminate recent research on how different students learn coding and computing. “One child might be more interested in earth science, one child might be more interested in gaming, one might be interested in social justice,” she said.