The Great STEM Debate

Is there a national shortage of workers with science, technology, engineering and math degrees or not?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013
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These days, many recruiters say there's definitely a shortage of STEM workers, while others in the HR world say no and some economists straddle the fence.

As the debate continues, Bayer Corp. released the results of its own survey -- Bayer Facts of Science Education -- conducted by International Communications Research between June and August of this year. According to responses from 150 talent recruiters representing 117 different companies, their answer is a resounding yes.  

"What surprised us were the results at non-STEM companies," says Laurel Rutledge, vice president of HR at Bayer Material Science in Baytown, Texas. "Those who were two- and four- year STEM degree-holders were at least as much, if not more so, in demand for non-STEM jobs as they were for STEM jobs."

Other findings include:

* 67 percent reported their companies were creating more, new STEM jobs than non-STEM jobs.

* Only half can find adequate numbers of qualified job candidates with either two-year (55 percent) or four-year degrees (50 percent) in a timely manner.

* Of those who can't find qualified STEM job candidates, the majority believes it is due to a shortage of both two-year (90 percent) and four-year (94 percent) degree-holders with the necessary STEM skills. Nearly seven in 10 (68 percent) also report their companies have a significant number of unfilled STEM jobs for four-year STEM degree holders while 48 percent cite vacancies for two-year STEM degree holders.

* Roughly half (47 percent) report that unfilled STEM jobs have resulted in "limits to business growth."

Rutledge says the survey's overall message is that fewer college students are entering STEM disciplines or graduating with STEM degrees. She believes this is a challenge that needs to be addressed by both employers and higher education institutions.

HR at Bayer has responded by implementing several internships and training programs designed to help cross-pollinate workers in different industry sectors. In 2011, it partnered with community colleges to train students as process-technology operators. So far, it has hired 90 percent of the 54 interns to work at its plant. It also rolled out a new manufacturing-focused trainee program across North America, recruiting approximately 30 high-potential graduates of chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering programs for summer internships and full-time rotational engineer-trainee positions. Likewise, it's piloting a volunteer STEM retention program at its Pittsburgh facility, where employees attend a leadership camp to receive training on serving as non-profit board members and work on a consulting team for a non-profit.

Meanwhile, the company's HR function plans on re-evaluating job qualifications. Maybe a chemist with a bachelor's degree, or even a lab technician, for instance, could fill a job formerly requiring a Ph.D. chemist, Rutledge says.

"Talent doesn't look like a four-year degree anymore," Rutledge says. "Not everyone can afford it, not everyone wants to do that and not everyone is suited to do that but may have innate talent."

Among the reasons why recruiters can't find STEM candidates is because not all are employed in STEM jobs, says Nicole Smith, senior economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington.

As an example, she points to those who graduate as chemists or engineers but wind up in sales or finance positions.

"Very often, because of the growing demand for STEM competencies in different occupations -- managerial, business and finance -- many STEM graduates are lured or poached by (non-STEM) companies," she says. "It creates an artificial vacuum for STEM workers," she says.

So the real issue, she says, is the need for schools to teach STEM competencies across disciplines. She believes it's myopic to proclaim a STEM shortage solely based on the number of STEM graduates or recruitment difficulties.

"There are no real shortages," Smith says. "The market will always clear and wages will move to restore equilibrium."

If there was a STEM shortage, wages would rise to attract those with STEM skills, not drop as they have done over recent years, says John Sumser, editor of the HR Examiner in San Francisco.

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Indeed, between 2002 and 2012, wages remained stagnant -- or else declined -- for the entire bottom 70 percent of the wage-distribution scale, according to an Economic Policy Institute report titled A Decade of Flat Wages.

He also points to another sign that the shortage is a myth: Companies holding out to fill vacant positions.

In reality, Sumser says he suspects recruiters are "trolling" for the best candidates, which is commonplace when the job market contains an ample supply of job candidates.

The only shortage, he says, is in the number of STEM workers who aren't willing to take a pay cut.

"The reason there's any talk of shortage at all is it's a way of causing cheaper workers to (enter) the economy," he says. "And those cheaper workers come into the economy with green cards."

He points to additional proof cited in an article by Robert Charette titled The STEM Crisis Is a Myth and published in the September issue of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' magazine. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Charette says, more than 370,000 science and engineering jobs in the United States were lost in 2011, partially due to outsourcing and automation.

To add more fuel to this debate, the author references a 2011 Georgetown University report, which estimated that about 180,000 STEM jobs in the United States require a bachelor's degree. However, 252,000 students graduated with STEM degrees in 2009. If you do the math, there weren't enough STEM jobs for roughly 70,000 STEM graduates.

There is strong evidence on both sides as to whether or not a STEM shortage exists. Perhaps the best approach toward either dealing with the shortage or avoiding one in the years ahead is for HR to redefine talent, says Rutledge.

"At the end of the day, what you're looking for is intellectual agility, great work ethic and capacity to learn and contribute," she says. "We make [our workers] well-rounded Bayer employees."

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