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MSPnet Blog: “Questioned assumptions #3: Not the economy, stupid!”

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posted June 25, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

It was Gerry Bracey who alerted me to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and its job outlook projections (the latest here, and wander around for more interesting stats) . Very often, when I read another policy statement bellowing that we must produce X million more STEM graduates or else we won’t be Top Nation anymore, I check back with BLS to see what the forecast is for jobs and their educational requirements. It makes you wonder why the economic arguments for school reform persist in the face of many reasons for skepticism, empirical as well as philosophical.
The most recent issue of the NY Review of Books has an extensive essay by Andrew Hacker on “The frenzy about high-tech talent.” It’s behind a paywall, alas,  but I’ll try to provide some cognate links that are accessible to all.  Here’s his main argument:

“A recurring complaint is that not enough of our young people and adults have the kinds of competence the coming century will require, largely because not nearly enough are choosing careers that require the skills of STEM…[Michael Teitelbaum’s 2014 book]  Falling Behind? makes a convincing case that even now the US has all the high-tech brains and bodies it needs, or at least that the economy can absorb.

Upon reviewing several economic analyses and reports in addition to Teitelbaum’s book, Hacker concludes that

 In viewing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as strategic weapons, we are constricting honored callings and narrowing national priorities, while the alleged needs for STEM workers are open to serious question, including whether the demand for them may be exaggerated and manipulated.

(A thorough– and accessible — review of Teitelbaum’s book, by Beryl Benderly, can be found here in Science, and another by Robert Charrette here in IEEE Spectrum.)

Hacker makes a strong case (and this is not new to many of us:  Thanks, Gerry!) that the business/market arguments for more STEM graduates, and higher and higher STEM standards are based on multiple misrepresentations.  I will gallop through some of these here, but each deserves deeper examination — I will return to these points and related ones over the next few months (though not for the next two weeks, see below):

Misrepresentation #1:  The economy desperately needs large amounts of new STEM talent.  But the numbers don’t add up:

A 2014 study by the National Science Board found that of 19.5 million holders of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, only 5.4 million were working in those fields, and a good question is what they do instead. The Center for Economic Policy and Research, tracing graduates from 2010 through 2014, discovered that 28 percent of engineers and 38 percent of computer scientists were either unemployed or holding jobs that did not need their training

Misrepresentation #2: In the New Century (now in its adolescence), more and more occupations will require more and more STEM competence.  But the BLS numbers don’t really show that at all.  The employment categories with the largest projected increase in actual numbers of jobs by 2022  (as opposed to % increase over current levels)  include food preparation, personal care and service, construction, and sales.  With the population increasing steadily, all job areas tend to grow, and some new categories will grow rapidly percentage-wise, of course.  But much of the tech driven work of the “creative sectors” filled by engineers (software, hardware, etc.) and other inventive areas,  has the effect of “de-skilling” many jobs, making more and more powerful processes easier (and cheaper) to use:

Its rise [i.e. of deskilling] has been a harsh surprise, since the common wisdom was that we would have to become more highly trained to confront the complexities of our time. Yet [Paul] Beaudry’s group shows how “high-skilled workers have moved down the occupational ladder and have begun to perform jobs traditionally performed by lower-skilled workers.”  But this doesn’t literally mean that graduate engineers shift to benchwork as technicians. Rather, their jobs are dissolved and they no longer have a place on the payroll.

(and see Nicholas Carr’s blog post on this and related issues in policy and ideology here).

Misconception #3:  The educational system,  as it is experienced,  encourages STEM learning and careers.  Americans basically like science, and think of it as beneficial to society (see the latest Pew Study on science and society here). But some how this generally positive orientation does not translate into growing supplies of eager young scientists, engineers, mathematicians, etc. The lamentations about this on the policy level are persistent. And as Hacker notes (other data are easy to find), many students who make it to college ready to go into STEM careers, having passed through the gauntlets of our “college and career-readiness” system, don’t succeed:

Among the high school seniors who took the ACT and SAT tests last year, fully 23 percent said that they intended to major in mathematics, computer science, engineering, or a physical or natural science…. By graduation, the number of students who start in STEM fields falls by a third and in health by a half. In engineering, of every one hundred who start, only fifty-five make it to a degree.

Misconception #4:  Policy-makers really want Americans to have better STEM skills so that they can all get better, higher-paying jobs.   No doubt some policy makers and business people would like to have Americans better educated in STEM, so that they can employ them in good jobs.  But there has been, and continues to be, an energetic effort to recruit adequately-educated workers from outside the US to fill technical positions.  The motivation seems to be economic — that is, to save labor costs — rather than because of a lack of talent at home. And having more American workers competing for STEM jobs with their overseas brothers and sisters makes for a buyer’s market in STEM labor.   This is evidenced at least in the technical sector by numerous stories of businesses laying off workers to make way for exploitable foreign workers. Hacker cites a striking study by N. Matloff whose abstract reads:

The two main reasons cited by the U.S. tech industry for hiring foreign workers– remedying labour shortages and hiring “the best and the brightest”–are investigated, using data on wages, patents, R&D work, as well as previous research and industry statements. The analysis shows that the claims of shortage and outstanding talent are not supported by the data, even after excluding the Indian IT service firms. Instead, it is shown that the primary goals of employers in hiring foreign workers are to reduce labour costs and to obtain “indentured” employees. Current immigration policy is causing an ‘Internal Brain Drain’ in STEM.


Lots more to explore here, and I hope the discussion will be lively, critical, and widely shared.  However, I am going to Wales for the next two weeks.  I will not be researching (ymchwilio) education (addysg), or thinking about government policy (polisi llwyodraeth).  I’ll  practice my Welsh (ymarfer Nghymraeg), walk in the mountains (cerdded yn y mynyddoedd) and stare at the rain (syllu ar y glaw).

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This blog post has 1 comment.

Keynesian efforts, Dickensian consequences

posted by: ray ivatt on 6/26/2015 7:45 am

Thank you, Brian, for your cogent summaries. It is Dickensian to focus on increasing the supply side of STEM graduates when there are insufficient [appropriate] opportunities for current STEM grads. It puts additional [downward] pressure on salaries and is not in the best interests of current or future STEM grads. Perhaps Keynesian efforts should also focus on the job demand side -- both qualitatively and quantitatively?