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Is the STEM crisis a myth?

· Java Zone
Is there a shortage of STEM workers? STEM being Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. I think most people would say "yes", but Robert Charette wrote a very detailed argument in IEEE spectrum saying that "the STEM crisis is a myth".

As a technical lead / team manager in the Boston technology space for 12 years, I find this VERY hard to believe.  Year after year I find a very significant shortage of good software engineers.

So let me try to drill into the evidence and see if I can challenge this finding.

Statement #1:  "Wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have largely stagnated since 2000"

First off, who is the source of that statement? It's the "Economic Policy Institute". Sounds great, right? Except when you drill into who the EPI is -- it's a bunch of Union bosses  ...  um, conflict of interest anyone?

Even if the data they cite is accurate -- that wages only increased 5.3 percent over 11 years, that doesn't necessarily mean there is NO shortage of engineers.  Yes there is a law of supply and demand, but there are also inefficiencies in the system, and if as later evidence suggests "10 years after receiving a STEM degree, 58 percent of STEM graduates had left the field" it could just be a function of experienced people leaving so that the wage number is dominated by a large number of junior people.

That said, I still question the number given the motivation of the source (unions).

Statement #2: 11.4 million STEM workers currently work outside of STEM  (image link)

Well, this I can believe -- STEM is hard work, you have to be good technically and good with people (to communicate designs, bugs etc). Companies do layoffs (been there), move out of state (been there, too) and after the dot-com implosion and the much overhyped offshoring trend I think a lot of people gave up and looked for less complicated, more stable (but lower paying) jobs.

But that still doesn't mean there isn't a shortage of STEM workers.

Statement #3: "At least in the United States, you don’t need a STEM degree to get a STEM job"

Definitely true, but if I was hiring a non-STEM degree person, I would need to see real STEM experience first.  But this raises a good possibility: retraining.  With new startups like the Flatiron school and LaunchAcademy, I think there is great evidence to suggest that we can retrain people relatively quickly to become great junior developers.

I definitely think firms like Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc. have the capital backing and the incentives to start retraining programs.

Statement #4: "In fact, though, more than 370 000 science and engineering jobs in the United States were lost in 2011"

I tried to find the original source for this but could not.  However the source that was cited is an author from the Center for Immigration Studies, which certainly seems to be largely anti-immigration, so again I question the motivation here. Although the BLS numbers may be accurate without a source I cannot be sure.

Statement #5: "Employers seldom offer generous education and training benefits to engineers to keep them current, so out-of-work engineers find that they quickly become technologically obsolete."

I agree with this statement, too, but I will say it doesn't necessarily have to be the employer's job to keep engineers current.  I have expended quite a bit of energy learning web technologies (I graduated in 1994 just before the web craze), Java programming (in 2000), SOA, ESB, SaaS and a host of other technologies over the past few years -- most on the job.

That said, I will say that not training people is short-sighted and definitely helps increase the shortage. However, in employers' defense what I will say is that many engineers who take training are doing so to leave the company and get a better job.

Statement #6: 180,000 new STEM jobs per year vs. 252,000 STEM degree graduates -- so what shortage?
We have to realize that a degree is just the starting point.  A degree does not guarantee employment or employability. I will touch on this more soon ...

Statement #7: "If there was really a STEM labor market crisis ... you would see signing bonuses, you’d see wage increases. You would see these companies really training their incumbent workers."

While I agree that this is likely true - it makes several assumptions and overlooks some facts.

  1. Employers are paying $20,000+ to find and hire great software engineering employees -- just how much more do they need to shell out before finding a productive employee?
  2. Signing bonuses don't work. When software engineers with three-to-five years of experience are pulling in $80k to $100k, a $10k bonus (after tax) doesn't help much. After a while engineers would rather work somewhere fun and exciting with great opportunities to learn.

Again, I agree with the training thing, however -- in my experience -- when companies provide training (say in some hot area like Hadoop or Data Science), many of these employees typically leave for better jobs. Although the training is good for the pool of engineers as a whole, that company just spent money to lose an employee. :-(

Now for the Conspiracy theory ...

Statement #8 "Clearly, powerful forces must be at work to perpetuate the cycle. One is obvious: the bottom line"

Do you see the cash that companies like Microsoft, Apple, Oracle and Google make every year!? They have so much cash they don't know what to do with it. Microsoft even began a dividend finally a few years back. I mean look at Yahoo's Acquire to Hire spending spree.  Because software engineers have so much choice, Yahoo needs to buy whole failed startups at millions of dollars each to get their engineers (and lock them into contracts for a few years).

Tech firms, especially in software, have some of the highest gross and net margins of any business.  I don't think Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Steve Ballmer, etc. are hurting for cash.

Statement #9 "DOD representatives state virtually unanimously that they foresee no shortage of STEM workers in the years ahead, except in a few specialty fields." 

As the report cited states further on, "because of the relatively small and declining size of the DOD STEM workforce, there is no current or projected shortage of STEM workers for DOD and its industrial contractor base except in specialized, but important, areas" (page 6) - so that invalidates that argument.

And here is a key finding in that same report that I think is reflected across the industry
"The STEM issue for DOD is the quality of its workforce, not the quantity available."

When I am hiring for an engineer I use the following rule-of-thumb based on my recent hiring experiences:

  • 40 resumes produce
  • 20 phone screens, which produce
  • 10 in-person interviews, which produce
  • 1 hire

I am beginning to think the issue is quality, not quantity

After thinking through my own personal experience and looking at the numbers, here I am beginning to agree -- I don't think there is a large shortage of STEM professionals in terms of just numbers.  It's a quality problem, not a quantity problem. There aren't enough "good" STEM people out there. What's the solution, then?

What's the motivation then behind this clarion call for more STEM graduates? I have always loved this quote and its derivatives

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity," known as Hanlon's (Heinlein's?) razor.

I think STEM firms are just too inner-focused and linear thinking to see what the "cheap" and effective answer is. Not more H-1Bs or more STEM graduates (of whom maybe one half to one quarter will stay in the business and be the "good" employees). Perhaps we need to get together and retrain people from various other disciplines, including the unemployed.  Hopefully firms like LaunchAcademy, the Flatiron schoo,l etc. will prove that we don't need to send people through 4 year Comp Sci programs to produce effective programmers.

Another key question is how many STEM graduates who have left would be willing to come back to STEM careers, and how do we do that?

I think these STEM firms are looking for the cheap and easy way out ... but in the end, waiting for more kids to come through four year degree programs is ridiculous when people can be retrained now and done so quickly.


Published at DZone with permission of Frank Kelly , DZone MVB .

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