Is There Really a Science and Engineering Gap?

By Michael Feldman

May 29, 2008

While researching last week’s blog on the H-1B topic, I came across an interesting 2007 report from the Urban Institute that challenges the conventional wisdom about the decline of U.S. science/engineering education and the technology workforce. The report, titled “Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand,” begins thusly:

Several high-level committees have concluded that current domestic and global trends are threatening America’s global science and engineering (S&E) preeminence. Of the challenges discussed, few are thought to be as serious as the purported decline in the supply of high quality students from the beginning to the end of the S&E pipeline — a decline brought about by declining emphasis on math and science education, coupled with a supposed declining interest among domestic students in S&E careers. However, our review of the data fails to find support for those presumptions. Rather, the available data indicate increases in the absolute numbers of secondary school graduates and increases in their math and science performance levels. Domestic and international trends suggest that U.S. schools show steady improvement in math and science, the U.S. is not at any particular disadvantage compared with most nations, and the supply of S&E-qualified graduates is large and ranks among the best internationally. Further, the number of undergraduates completing S&E studies has grown, and the number of S&E graduates remains high by historical standards.

The report points out the overall number of science and engineering degrees is more than adequate for domestic workforce demand, noting about a 3-to-1 ratio of graduates-to-jobs from 1985-2000. Over that period, S&E jobs were added at a fairly steady clip of 150,000 per year. While local labor shortages may occur in specific domains, the report could not find any general shortage of qualified graduates for technology jobs.

The authors, B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Hal Salzman of the The Urban Institute, argue that industry expectations of the domestic labor market may be unrealistic. In many cases, employers are demanding technology workers with high levels of expertise or specific technical skills. At the same time, science and engineering firms complain that schools fail to provide students with the “soft skills” needed in today’s companies. If you glance at a typical technology job posting, you’ll get the idea. The authors say they conducted interviews with current managers and engineers who believe that there is “little future in entry-level engineering jobs in many industries, and IT in particular.”

To compound the problem, large IT companies have been sending mixed messages. Company spokesmen like Intel Chairman Craig Barrett and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates give lip service to renewed public investment in science and engineering education, while their companies are busy importing as many workers as they can via the H-1B visa program and investing heavily overseas in low-cost geographies like India and China.

The report notes that this is creating a hostile environment for would-be tech workers, who are simply reacting to a labor market that is being shaped by the behavior of companies, large and small. I’d even go further and suggest that the IT industry is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by demanding education and skills at wages that are unpalatable to the domestic workforce. And while a CEO or chairman of the board may entertain the patriotic notion of maintaining U.S. leadership in science and technology, the company’s investors have other priorities.

The report also challenges the unexamined assumptions that the U.S. is best served by being number one in science and math. “This confuses means and ends,” say the authors. They argue that a narrow focus on high test scores is a weak foundation upon which to develop a competitive workforce that drives innovation. And besides, there is little evidence that our economic rivals — like China and India — are outcompeting us based on superior educational achievement. Singapore is an example of a successful competitor that is “trying to emulate U.S. innovation and creativity and de-emphasize strict math and science test performance.”

The authors offer no specific course of action, but believe that “evidence-based policy” is the way to go. Labor markets need to be studied in more detail to determine future demands. A long-term investment in domestic human resources is probably needed, since the short-term fix of importing a lot of foreign tech workers into the country is likely to have unintended consequences.

The Urban Institute paper is certainly at odds with the some of the views expressed in the better-known “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report from 2005, which recommended an aggressive expansion of science/math education and the associated workforce. Suggestions included offering 10,000 four-year scholarships for K-12 science and math teachers; upgrading the skills of 250,000 current teachers; enlarging the pipeline of science, engineering and math students entering college; and giving preferential treatment to immigrants and visa holders with technology skills. It should be noted that these recommendations were part of a larger set of initiatives that would also expand publicly-funded science and technology research.

Fans of the Gathering Storm — and the 2007 sequel, “Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth” — should take a look at the Eye of the Storm report, if only to expose themselves to a contrary view of the topic. The real value of these studies though lies in the realization that the creation of technical innovation is not formulaic and requires a nuanced approach by industry and policymakers. The sobering reality is that the pace and scope of technology and globalization is outstripping our ability to study their effects.

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