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Is the Supposed STEM Shortage a Myth Used to Serve Tech Companies Labor Policies?

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Michael Hiltzik strongly suggests yes.

Alice Tornquist, a Washington lobbyist for the high-tech firm Qualcomm, took the stage at a recent Qualcomm-underwritten conference to remind her audience that companies like hers face a dire shortage of university graduates in engineering. The urgent remedy she advocated was to raise the cap on visas for foreign-born engineers.

“Although our industry and other high-tech industries have grown exponentially,” Tornquist said, “our immigration system has failed to keep pace.” The nation’s outdated limits and “convoluted green-card process,” she said, had left firms like hers “hampered in hiring the talent that they need.”

What Tornquist didn’t mention was that Qualcomm may then have had more engineers than it needed: Only a few weeks after her June 2 talk, the San Diego company announced that it would cut its workforce, of whom two-thirds are engineers, by 15%, or nearly 5,000 people.

The mismatch between Qualcomm’s plea to import more high-tech workers and its efforts to downsize its existing payroll hints at the phoniness of the high-tech sector’s persistent claim of a “shortage” of U.S. graduates in the “STEM” disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

As millions of students prepare this summer to begin their university studies, they’re being pressed to choose STEM fields, if only to keep America in the lead among its global rivals. “In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind,” President Obama stated in 2010. He labeled the crisis “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

The high-tech industry contends that U.S. universities simply aren’t producing enough graduates to meet demand, leading to a “skills gap” that must be filled from overseas if the U.S. is to maintain its global dominance. Low unemployment rates among computer workers imply that “demand has outpaced supply,” Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution told me by email. “Companies struggle to fill job vacancies for skilled programmers and other STEM fields.”

Yet many studies suggest that the STEM shortage is a myth. In computer science and engineering, says Hal Salzman, an expert on technology education at Rutgers, “the supply of graduates is substantially larger than the demand for them in industry.” Qualcomm is not the only high-tech company to be aggressively downsizing. The computer industry, led by Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, cut nearly 60,000 jobs last year, according to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The electronics industry pared an additional 20,000 positions.

The high-tech industry then lobbies for more H-1B visas, allowing for immigration of high tech workers from nations like India. Is the reason a shortage? No, it’s to flood the market and lower wages for all. And it’s a great strategy–wrap your labor strategy up in a nice passage of national security and Sinophobia, convince Congress, the president, and the entire world of higher education that universities are not serving the needs of important American industries, and *presto*, you can start driving down wages for highly skilled labor by flooding market at both ends, creating a massive oversupply of labor.

As a historian in one of the disdained departments by university administration, watching the chickens come home to roost on this when all the STEM graduates can’t get good jobs is going to be interesting.

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  • StellaB

    This is a question? Of course the high-tech industry wants to replace highly paid engineers with low-paid and easily controlled engineers from third world countries.

    • Well, it’s enough of a question that President Obama believes that there’s a STEM crisis.

      • somethingblue

        Yes, apparently all the STEM students are too busy studying Tintoretto and Delacroix.

      • wjts

        It should also be kept in mind that the “STEM” in this debate is a pretty narrow set of subfields, mostly in engineering, CS, medicine, some of the physical sciences, and maybe parts of mathematics. It’s not like there are thousands of positions in evolutionary mycology, paleolimnology, and observational astronomy that are currently going unfilled.

        • It should also be kept in mind that the “STEM” in this debate is a pretty narrow set of subfields, mostly in engineering, CS, medicine, some of the physical sciences, and maybe parts of mathematics.

          Actually narrower subsets of engineering, CS, etc. I’ve never heard anyone complain that we need to import civil or chemical engineers, or software quality testers, etc. The fake shortage has to do with big corporations in businesses that are seen as hot looking to make up for their shitty business plans and management by lowering wages in high-wage fields.

          • I’ve seen lots of H1B software testers. Was that sarcasm again?

            • No it wasn’t, and I’m not sure what you mean by “again.” The propaganda I’ve heard for the “STEM shortage” has always been about high-level positions.

              • The other day I was informed that my comment was pointless because it took joe of Lowell seriously when he was being sarcastic. I guess I’m overly self-conscious now. Sorry for being cryptic.

                Eta: most testers at places I’ve worked have more or less the same university training as developers and customer support

                • I wasn’t dissing testers – the quality of a lot of software seems to indicate that there are more testers needed – but rather using testing as an example of an unsexy STEM job that never seems to be the center of employment stat discussions.

                • Yeah, it’s not sexy, but it’s a job for CS graduates who don’t get to be developers, and employs a lot of them. If that work is done offshore, those people don’t have jobs. Occasionally, OTOH, it’s a job for graduates to get trained on, and if the training jobs are offshored or outsourced, there’s no training path for recent grads. At least at one time, it was a job often staffed by the same big consulting firms who are asking for more H1B workers now (though not often en masse, I’d never seen more than a couple floating guys who’d fill in here or there, though in one small office, not in the U.S., with a two person QA team, both were from that consultant (everyone else was native).

                • Tyro

                  QA has become a tragic field in the software industry. Maybe decades ago they would take people from QA as a stepping stone to development, but now if you end up getting a job in QA, you will carry the “Mark of Cain” of being in QA for the rest of your career.

                  Basically, anything associated in any way with “support staff” will keep your pay down and mark you for layoffs at any company you end up a part of.

                • There’s no doubt that transitioning to development is difficult and rare. OTOH I’ve known people (I’m related to some) who had no interest in tech work, were surprised that they’d have to do a lot of coding and debugging, and only studied CS because someone told them it was a good idea. I guess these mostly end up in sales or HR, though–or, in one case I know of, med school.

                  And the other problem is managers who are convinced that developers will improve their coding skills if they have to do their own QA, and therefore lay off the QA department.

                • And the other problem is managers who are convinced that developers will improve their coding skills if they have to do their own QA, and therefore lay off the QA department.

                  Here’s where I shit on managers: the concept that QA has to be conducted by someone other than the person who did the original work goes back at least as far as pre-Gutenberg scribes. If someone can’t see that “quality assurance” actually means something and has a bearing on (a) the quality of whatever is being produced and, most of the time, (b) success with customers, then they shouldn’t be managing anything more important than cooking their own dinner.

                • Yeah, it would be one thing if there was research on having no QA and established ways of testing without separate QA. Actually the one time I saw this done, it was framed as “work smarter not harder” but the real situation was political, where QA had a different VP than us, and we were disfavored and couldn’t get them to schedule time for our products.

                • Origami Isopod

                  “work smarter not harder”

                  Christ, I’ve come to hate that expression.

                • Philip

                  Microsoft’s layoffs were partly driven by laying off all their SETs (software engineers in testing) and having standard SE roles include testing. Although at least in some areas of development, that’s actually not as unreasonable as it might sound, because most software testing has nothing to do with user-visible QA

            • Zoltar the Magniloquent

              I wouldn’t be surprised if that sort of unglamorous position is where a lot of H1-B developers end up–it lets companies place lower-wage workers in positions that the higher-ups deem less important (thus the stunning quality of US software).

          • Zamfir

            Funny thing is, chemical engineer seems to be a well-paid, comfortable job in most places. I would easily advise that over software engineer for youngsters worrying about future career prospects.

      • ColBatGuano

        Well, it’s enough of a question that President Obama believes that there’s a STEM crisis.

        While President Obama is a very smart fellow, I doubt he has the time to get into the details of this topic and so relies on his team to give him updates. I’m guessing they don’t spend a lot of time talking to rank and file STEM workers, but I’m sure they get the CEO’s side down to the last detail.

        • Procopius

          It adds insult to injury when they make the people being laid off train the H1B replacements. H1B are supposed to be to fill positions that *can’t* be filled at market rates. They aren’t supposed to be a tool to lower market wages. Nobody wants be the one to tell President Obama that, though.

  • FMguru

    It’s been known, provable bullshit for a long time. Even way back in the last tech boom, Microsoft was found whining about how hard it was to find qualified workers, and then turning around and bragging about how they only hired something like 4% of the people they interviewed.

    I’ve worked in tech companies with H1B’s and they are rather spectacularly exploited.

    The other thing to be wary of are reports and articles about the next hot job field – if you look at the sources, 99% of the time it’s some industry group trying to increase the supply of labor they don’t have to pay a premium for scarcity.

    • Unemployed_Northeastern

      “The other thing to be wary of are reports and articles about the next hot job field – if you look at the sources, 99% of the time it’s some industry group trying to increase the supply of labor they don’t have to pay a premium for scarcity.”

      This reminds me how the most vocal organization about how the United States has a dire shortage of college graduates and that the workforce will require 60% of Americans to have a college degree by 2025 (up from about 29% today) is… a foundation created by two private student lenders. The foundation is Lumina, and yes, one of those student lending founder was Sallie Mae.

    • Derelict

      The classics always play well.

      Company in Need of Engineers: “We just can’t get enough qualified applicants! We advertise the positions, and we don’t get many applications from the best people in the field!”

      Potential Applicant: “Hey! I need a job in my field. Whatchya paying?”

      Company: “Oh, how’s $18,000 a year with no benefits?”

      Applicant: “Ah, no. That level of pay doesn’t even cover my student loans.”

      Company: “See! There are no qualified applicants! We need H1B visas!”

      It’s roughly equivalent to complaining that there are no Porsches available because nobody will sell you a 2016 Porsche off the showroom floor for $20.

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        Or the employer simply puts out impossible requirements, like needing 3 years’ experience in XYZ which was invented 18 months ago. Wah! We can’t find anyone, we need an H1B!

        • Derelict

          Yep–I remember reading an ad looking for a Website coder back in 1998. The employer wanted, yes, 3 years experience working with HTML 4.0 and CSS, two things that were just then being developed. At the time, I chalked it up to some HR person who was told “Go get someone who’s up on all this Web stuff,” and who then spent 5 minutes searching on Dogpile (remember them?) and wrote the ad based on all the buzzwords they found.

          • I was partly responsible for one of these once. (I’m sure I’ve told this story, maybe not here.). I had to draw up a job description but was too junior to have real influence. I wrote “six years experience, plus one of x, y, and z.” We bought the ad as “six years experience in x, y, and z.” You don’t want to know who we actually eventually hired.

            Arguably it’s logically necessary that a correct move existed where I could cause the correct ad to be written, but I still don’t know what that was.

  • DocAmazing

    Oh, it gets worse. There’s a sizable community of unemployed older (50+, and in many cases even younger) engineers in Silicon Valley/the greater Bay Area who are quite qualified, but they aren’t demographically what a lot of tech firms want. They possess the necessary skills, but they a) understand concepts like “seniority” and “work-life balance”, and b) didn’t pledge the same Florida frat as the start-up’s founder.

    • If this blog had a “like” button I would eschew its use to say: exactly.

    • I’ve even heard of techies in Silicon Valley getting plastic surgery to make themselves look younger (and thus employable).

      • CrunchyFrog

        They should probably also darken their skin, adopt an Indian name and accent, and be willing to work for 50-60% of the rate of people not on visas. There are software shops in the bay area now that are almost perfect replicas of Indian offshore shops down to the staff.

        By the way, the companies that do this aren’t actually saving money. Oh, they think they are, based on the rate-per-engineering and accounting tricks designed to make the execs hit MBO targets based on engineering savings.

    • Unemployed_Northeastern

      Ditto around Boston, which is the nation’s #2 tech sector. Age discrimination certainly seems to kick in by one’s late 40’s – and much like stagnant wages, age discrimination is another sign of a labor surfeit, not a labor shortage.

      Boston is also the nation’s and perhaps the world’s epicenter for the life sciences, biotech, and pharma. Despite all this, I personally know an Ivy League postdoc or two barely making $40k working at extraordinarily wealthy research institutes.

      • JL

        Only one or two? That’s normal pay for life science postdocs in academia (unfortunately).

        • That’s what Mrs__B was making as a postdoc at a big research hospital in NY when we met.

        • ColBatGuano

          It’s how the system works. After 5 years of graduate work to get the PhD in life sciences, you then need to spend 3-5 (or more) years as a postdoc for low wages while having to work like a dog because you’re setting yourself up for a permanent position. It functions well for established principal investigators, but for grad students and postdocs it’s a long grind for relatively low wages.

    • Philip

      And I’ve heard of some companies making this semi-explicit in hiring guidelines. “culture fit” is almost always bullshit.

      • Origami Isopod

        It’s not only bullshit, it’s a giant red flag. Executives/managers who shape their workplaces to recreate their high school, college, or social-club experiences inevitably create toxic, cult-like workplaces.

    • Oh yes. I’ll be 49 in a few days, and I have found that, basically, there’s nobody in the Bay Area who will hire me. Also: The longer you’re out of work, the harder it gets to be hired by another company.

      I have basically given up on ever getting another tech job.

      • I’m sorry to hear that!

      • JonH

        I think I’m done also. I was laid off in June of 2013, a couple weeks after I rented an apartment a 3 minute walk from the office. Spent the year in that apartment burning cash and looking for work; not much iOS work in central Connecticut. Phone interviews with Amazon and Apple (2 with Apple, maybe 3?). When my lease ended I moved back in with my parents, fortunately because they both had serious health problems over the next year. I’m still sticking around, mostly to help around the house and pick my dad up when he falls.

        I would probably have had more luck getting a job if I hadn’t decided that, really, I’m not a terribly good developer. I feel rather like the guy in the old line about the guy with 20 years of experience: one year, 20 times.

        I’ve also largely lost interest in it. I’m tired of chasing the constant stream of “this year’s hot javascript framework” and whatnot. I’m out of fucks to give about this stuff. Even if I could manage a few fucks, Apple’s Mac and iOS app stores are so crowded and badly run it’s very hard to make a living selling an application. Everyone wants iOS apps to be free, and while Mac apps are more sanely priced, it’s still crowded.

        After all the time spent with my dad at emergency rooms and whatnot I’ve been thinking about getting trained as a radiology tech.

  • somethingblue

    As a historian in one of the disdained departments by university administration, watching the chickens come home to roost on this when all the STEM graduates can’t get good jobs is going to be interesting.

    Maybe a few of them could go into politics, to replace all those Republican congressmen who aren’t scientists.

  • 1. The new thing is STEAM, which is supposed to integrate creative skills, as a method for teaching liberal arts skills but more for teaching innovation and design as well as harder science skills.

    2. Very few companies hire out of college. Qualcomm may be big enough to be one of them. A company that’s doing very well may hire dozens of recent graduates a summer. Those people don’t all stay on. Those who stay in the industry are the ones who populate the companies that don’t do school recruiting, though these may take on people with advanced degrees who’ve published in the area, or have contacts with current employees, etc.

    It may well be that they aren’t finding what they need–assuming it’s not just boilerplate–but vastly increasing the number of graduates in the field might not be the fix they need.

    3. I’d like to see evidence there’s been an effort to find matches with people who’ve been out of work three years or more, people whose skills aren’t a perfect match (beyond offering for profit courses and saying it’s up to the workers now), and so on, before saying we need more graduates. Someone who won’t train a C programmer in Java, or deal with someone who’s been at the same place 15 years and may have trouble with a transition, won’t have time to train a college student either.

    • Tyro

      The new thing is STEAM, which is supposed to integrate creative skills, as a method for teaching liberal arts skills but more for teaching innovation and design as well as harder science skills.

      While I’m sure there is nothing wrong with this, it isn’t like the last couple generations of STEM graduates were so lacking in these areas that companies found them unhireable.

      Plus, the market for innovation isn’t that large. The bulk of STEM jobs aren’t about entrepreneurship/innovation/design at all.

      • But marketing is so cool! All the people who found companies have those skills, I think you’ll find. Also the kids who win competitions. And you can’t run a posh private school on STEM skills alone. Not that anyone would want a purely STEM elementary school, which is where I’ve seen the idea.

        • Tyro

          All the people who found companies have those skills, I think you’ll find.

          As I said, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with learning these things, but not everyone wants or can be a founder, and the jobs available in STEM don’t even support/care about those skills.

          “You should have more innovation/marketing skills” might help an individual, but it doesn’t solve the overall problem.

          • Yeah, in my town, STEAM is the “gimmick” for the new elementary school. It’s a diverse student body and they need a way to draw in families for a school that doesn’t really exist yet, and as a way of branding an academically oriented school and/or also drawing in kids who want to build stuff (they have a Maker Lab), it seems like a reasonable plan. But their model is some Stanford Lab School that possibly they’re not going to get all that close to.

            eta: the vo-tech school in town has one of the highest college placement rates in the state, for a lot of the kids in town it could be a really good path, probably (don’t know much about it)

    • Also–too late to edit–in the Boom 80s, companies flew all over the country to recruit, and flew kids in to interview onsite. Some places that are very flush may still do that, but with the rise in fuel prices and so on, I’d bet most don’t. So the opportunities to hire kids from Penn State or Madison may have become more limited.

      • Mike G

        I wonder if part of the (isolated rare cases of) labor shortage is that US corporations’ HR have become so risk-averse and dumbed-down, all lazily pursuing the same very short list of prestigious buzzword attributes.

        There was a study recently on grads hired for management consulting and Wall Street and the determining factor was almost entirely what school you graduated from and very little on individual attributes. They want grads of Harvard/Yale/Stanford/whatever because this demonstrates they were able to jump the selection hoops to get into these schools. Any kind of judgement call on an individual is taking a risk of blowback if they don’t work out, so they lazily rely on and hide behind a school’s reputation and nothing else. We’re becoming like Old Europe.

        • Unemployed_Northeastern

          “There was a study recently on grads hired for management consulting and Wall Street and the determining factor was almost entirely what school you graduated from and very little on individual attributes.”

          It’s a book, actually, entitled “Pedigree” and written by a professor at Kellogg named Lauren Rivera. One might note here on Lawyers, Guns & Money that big law firms hire using exactly the same *criteria* – prestige as proxy for potential. It’s why my counterpart “Unemployed_Northwestern” is largely chimerical while Northeastern struggles to get 1/2 of its graduates into the legal profession in any capacity.

          Speaking of HR buzzword baloney, a moment should be spent at least acknowledging that companies, STEM and otherwise, increasingly use software filters to determine who to interview, and those quite lazily sort by keywords in the job requirements, which may or may not be realistic or even contradictory. The result?

          “Job descriptions heavily larded with keywords make it virtually impossible to find acceptable candidates. Wharton researcher Peter Cappelli tells about an employer that got 25,000 applicants for a routine engineering position. The ATS rejected every single one of them. Every day that an impossible job requisition remains unfilled, the employment system vendors make more money while companies keep advertising for the perfect hires. Millions of jobs are vacant, thanks to the empty promises of algorithms. Ignoring the role of the systems behind this failure is a costly mistake.” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/ask-the-headhunter-unemploymentmade-in-america-by-employers/

          • guthrie

            INdeed. Reliance on keywords and people who don’t know the actual specialisms on offer is a really bad thing. I’ve never gotten anywhere with job applications for which I was eminently qualified and experienced either because I’m too old or too experienced, or because I didn’t have the right keywords.

            A friend of mine applied for a job once, it wanted people with PhD, certain type of experience. He didn’t get interviewed; he had a PhD but not so much else. The stupid thing was that this specific tight list of desired attributes came up in adverts six months later. IT appeared at leat 3 times for one job with this certain company, and it is unclear if they ever found anyone for it. They certainly wasted lots of time and money, I think by being too specific.

            • postmodulator

              In IT, at least, I believe this to be by design. If you reject 25,000 applicants, what better evidence that you’ve got to bring in an H1-B?

              The more blatant version is the job posting — somewhat rarer now — that demanded 2N years of experience in a technology that was N years old.

            • Reliance on keywords and people who don’t know the actual specialisms on offer is a really bad thing.

              It’s simply the HR manifestation of the management theory that says you don’t have to know much about your company’s products, just about management.

          • Origami Isopod

            Great article, until this part:

            For example, if I run a company, I’ll hire you to do work — if it pays off more than what I pay you to do it. Today, few employers know which jobs actually pay off. That’s why you need to know how to walk into a manager’s office and demonstrate, hands down, how you will contribute profit to the manager’s business. That’s right: Be smarter than the manager about his own business. Stop begging for jobs. Start offering profit.

            If you can’t do that, you have no business applying for any job, in any company.

            Really?

            • Ahuitzotl

              Thats staggeringly stupid – if you can do that, you should probably be talking to that managers boss about a position

              • “So [prospective] boss, here’s how to make a profit: get some guns, go to the nearest bank, kill everyone there, and take the money.”

              • guthrie

                IN many companies, it goes more like “Hey, he’s/ She’s more clever than me, I won’t hire him/her // I’d better fire him as quickly as possible before he takes my job.”

          • Bruce B.

            I reposted the article the post here links to, and friends of mine with hiring experience in the tech field did a multi-voice rant in harmony about this problem – they never get a chance to see a bunch of candidates who might do very well.

      • Philip

        Certainly the big tech companies still do, but seeing as tech is pretty clearly back in a bubble…

    • a

      2. Very few companies hire out of college. Qualcomm may be big enough to be one of them. A company that’s doing very well may hire dozens of recent graduates a summer. Those people don’t all stay on. Those who stay in the industry are the ones who populate the companies that don’t do school recruiting, though these may take on people with advanced degrees who’ve published in the area, or have contacts with current employees, etc.

      Qualcomm hired me out of college, with the offer coming in the fall of my senior year in late 2009. They flew me out for a fancy weekend of interviews after I tossed my resume in a pile at at a job fair. They paid me $75000, plus $15000 in hiring and relocation bonuses, plus an ESPP.

      A huge proportion of my coworkers— probably 2/3— were first-generation Indian and East Asian immigrants, and many were on H1-B visas. I left after a year, because San Diego (especially office-park land) wasn’t really my jam, but they were a decent employer. Co-workers still there have say things have gotten more cubicle-y, probably because smartphones are starting to turn into a commodity after a few years of huge profits.

    • As someone who works in the tech industry, I think the biggest gap is in people who are capable of doing ‘creative’ work like UI design, product development, etc. with a sufficient amount of empirical rigor. So liberal arts for tech people and science for liberal arts people both seem like really good ideas to me.

      • upstate_cyclist

        “Liberal arts for tech people” was a thing in the late 90s when I was preparing to go to college. How much do you hear about that these days? It isn’t because all the new computer engineers are coming out with minors in English literature.

        My all-time favorite HR response from a Fortune 500 tech company

        Deemed under-committed to science, given the double major in physics and history

        • SethTS

          I wonder if that HR person would have kept Edward Witten out of Physics grad school because he was a history major in college?

    • JonH

      I think a lot of the sticking points, skills-wise, are not in languages as such but frameworks and things. Learning Objective-C is easy, learning AppKit is a much bigger task. It’s not just Java, it’s WebLogic, or whatever.

      Sometimes, the frameworks and things are expensive corporate-aimed things that don’t have a version you could learn on by yourself.

  • JL

    As a historian in one of the disdained departments by university administration, watching the chickens come home to roost on this when all the STEM graduates can’t get good jobs is going to be interesting.

    “When”? This is hardly new.

    “STEM” employability has long been the employability of a few very specific subsets of STEM. Do you think people with physics or chemistry or astronomy bachelor’s degrees from mid-rank universities (i.e. those without the “pedigree” to easily switch over to well-paying fields like data science or management consulting that love displaced prestigious-school STEM grads) are raking it in?

    And the idea that the “shortages” are actually a ploy for cheaper labor (not just by bringing in guest workers, but by increasing supply of US workers so much that wages go down) and the STEM shortage is at the very least overstated is known by the savvier elements of the STEM worker community (there are, of course, plenty of unsavvy young workers who just assume that what they’ve been told about their fields by their mentors, parents, and the media, is true). For example see this IEEE article or this very comprehensive Chronicle of Higher Ed article.

    The thing that confuses me is how this misrepresentation has been sustaining itself for so long at mid-rank and lower-rank schools. Surely someone at those institutions must have noticed before now that not all of the STEM departments are placing all their grads in lucrative jobs. Maybe I need to work on increasing my cynicism.

    • Tyro

      The thing that confuses me is how this misrepresentation has been sustaining itself for so long at mid-rank and lower-rank schools. Surely someone at those institutions must have noticed before now that not all of the STEM departments are placing all their grads in lucrative jobs

      The administrators don’t care all that much, and the students only have about a 5-to-10-years-ahead perspective. All the mechanical and electrical engineering alums from Directional State University are doing well with decent, solid-paying, if not very exciting, jobs (even better if they look to have even more exciting opportunities just a few years away). Biology and physics majors after graduating are all in graduate programs or postdoctoral fellowships, hoping that there will be a tenure track faculty or industry job just over the horizon. The reality won’t become clear for another 10 years after that, which is far too ahead for students or administrators to think (or care) about.

    • porwin

      This is overstating things IMHO. As a teacher at a “lower-rank” school, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that our Chem, Bio, CS, Physics grads do well in the job market. Obviously, the ones with crap grades do less well, but our top 10-20% of graduates are competitive for all sorts of jobs, professional schools (dental, med, CLS, etc) or even, god forbid, graduate school (I try to warn them, it doesn’t always work). I don’t claim that they are doing better than top grads in other fields, but they certainly do ok. STEM (or STEAM) is not equivalent to CS and Engineering, and not every STEM grad is destined for or interested in making the next great dog walking app. Many of them just want a good, steady job with a decent future. Especially when 2/3 of them come from socioeconomic disadvantage, and ~1/2 are 1st in their family to go to college.
      I am not usually one to pick fights in the comments section here, but I think some assumption questioning here wouldn’t hurt.
      Edit- I need to learn to type faster than Tyro :)

      • JL

        STEM (or STEAM) is not equivalent to CS and Engineering…

        That was a big part of my point, so I don’t think we disagree on it.

        and not every STEM grad is destined for or interested in making the next great dog walking app.

        Now who’s making assumptions? I have never suggested any such thing, and in fact would be horrified if I thought that’s what all the kids these days were interested in doing. I am myself a STEM person – in computer science – with zero interest in making the next shiny Internet toy. When I’m not in activist circles I’m mostly around STEM people, and well aware of the diversity of what that means.

        The top 10-20% doing well in the job market is wonderful, but what about the other 80-90%? Or, even, let’s say, the middle 50%, the ones who are clearly neither the top students nor doing poorly? Are they doing well on the market?

        Please understand, 1) I would be thrilled to hear that they are, and 2) I’m not intending to impugn middle- and lower-rank schools, which often do a better job of actually teaching all their students than elite ones, and get plenty of very good students. I’m impugning various STEM industry hiring and lobbying practices that screw over less “pedigreed” young workers. I’ve seen myself how much misguided emphasis a lot of well-paying employers of STEM workers put on prestige, and how they write up their own job descriptions in ways that screen out a lot of perfectly qualified people.

        • Fortunado

          The top 10-20% doing well in the job market is wonderful, but what about the other 80-90%? Or, even, let’s say, the middle 50%, the ones who are clearly neither the top students nor doing poorly? Are they doing well on the market?

          I had the EXACT same reaction – what about the other 90%?

          This is the American story in a nutshell; point to a few winners who are doing spectacularly well and say “all is good”, while the vast majority work hard at menial jobs they hate just to get by.

      • Origami Isopod

        You think that just because you teach at a “lower-rank” school it’s okay that no more than a fifth of your kids do well in the job market? I mean, who cares, most of them are just poors, right?

        Somehow, I don’t think it’s everyone else’s assumptions that need questioning.

        • Lee Rudolph

          I mean, who cares, most of them are just poors, right?

          I can assure you that just because a school is “lower-rank” doesn’t mean that any appreciable fraction of its enrolled students (or of the 4/5 of its graduating class who don’t “do well in the job market”) are “just poors”. Many and many a “lower-rank” school is chock-full of non-poor, indeed, non-(lower-)middle-class, students; believe me.

          • Origami Isopod

            Right, but I was responding to this:

            Especially when 2/3 of them come from socioeconomic disadvantage, and ~1/2 are 1st in their family to go to college.

            • Lee Rudolph

              Missed that. Or repressed it. What an asshole.

      • Barry_D

        “I can tell you in no uncertain terms that our Chem, Bio, CS, Physics grads do well in the job market. Obviously, the ones with crap grades do less well, but our top 10-20% of graduates are competitive for all sorts of jobs, professional schools (dental, med, CLS, etc) or even, god forbid, graduate school…”

        Does anybody else see the contradiction here?

    • Denverite

      “When”? This is hardly new.

      My grandfather was a petroleum engineer in the Gulf Coast region. He got his degree as part of the post-WWII GI bill and thought that working as an engineer for an oil company would entitle him to print money. Apparently a lot of the returning GIs had the same idea. He told me a story one time about how by the early 1950s the market for petroleum engineers in the region was so flooded with recent grads that just about anything made more money than working as an engineer for an oil company. Truck drivers were making twice as much as engineers. A door-to-door salesman — also an engineer — told him one time that he could make a lot more money in sales. My grandfather told him that he didn’t spend three years on a boat and three more years in college to sell vacuum cleaners.

      Also, man, he was racist as all hell.

  • AcademicLurker

    When I was in graduate school back in the mid 90s, it was already clear that the breathless “There’s going to be a shortage of scientists in 10 years!” reports that had been trumpeted during the 80s were BS.

    It’s amazing how persistent this particular myth has been. It’s harder to kill than Jason Voorhees.

    • Mike G

      I read a fair amount of aviation-related blogs, and a similar myth about an impending-but-never-seems-to-happen “pilot shortage” has been around for decades.
      Meanwhile, pilots at regional airlines start around $20k, and few ever make it to the major carriers. There’s a whole colony of pilots living in RVs in the parking lot at the end of the runway at LAX, and it’s not because they love jet noise.

      • Linnaeus

        While labor conditions are a secondary focus of the program, I never realized just how bad they were for a lot of commercial pilots until I saw the “Flying Cheap” episode of Frontline.

      • Derelict

        Yeah, the coming pilot shortage has been coming since I was a wee little student pilot back in the 1970s. It never arrives, but it does keep the market flooded with low-time, low-pay pilots. All the squalling you hear in the industry about how hard it is to get pilots is mostly coming from outfits that don’t pay squat and treat pilots like crap.

        Oh, and there’s been an impending shortage of mechanics since the 1960s.

      • Believe it or not, there is a bit of pilot shortage right now.

        Some of the regional airlines may actually fold for lack of first officers.

        A big part of it is pay, of course. Surprisingly not many people want to spend $100,000 in training costs to get a job that pays $20k a year.

        Even at my company, people are retiring faster than we can hire and train replacements. We’re seeing retirements around 150 a year projected to continue through the next decade or so. Largely due to baby boomers hitting age 65.

        • guthrie

          You mean the market doesn’t work smoothly and efficiently to ensure a steady supply of warm bodies trained pilots to the companies?

        • Derelict

          At the little cargo airline I worked at, we had a pilot shortage for a while–until we upped pay to something realistic. When we started paying $55K for pilots on the night cargo runs, we had plenty of applicants. A whole lotta bozos in there, but enough good pilots that we kept the left seats occupied and the boxes in motion.

          OTOH, I had a friend who was a training captain at American back in the ’90s. I remember him calling me up one afternoon and imploring me to go get my commercial ticket because AA was hiring anybody who was upright and breathing with an instrument rating and a commercial. They were desperate to get fannies in the right seat in their ATRs. I sometimes wonder how many of those unfortunates stayed in aviation, especially after 2001.

        • Barry_D

          “Believe it or not, there is a bit of pilot shortage right now.

          Some of the regional airlines may actually fold for lack of first officers.

          A big part of it is pay, of course. Surprisingly not many people want to spend $100,000 in training costs to get a job that pays $20k a year.”

          That’s not a shortage, that’s being unwilling to pay.

          “Even at my company, people are retiring faster than we can hire and train replacements. We’re seeing retirements around 150 a year projected to continue through the next decade or so. Largely due to baby boomers hitting age 65.”

          As has been pointed out here, and elsewhere, there’s a vast number of pilots stuck flying for Podunk Air, making $10/hr.

          Hire them.

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        I like the law professors who have consistently claimed that there would be a new lawyer shortage by 2011 2014 2017…

    • UserGoogol

      The argument could be made that we have a shortage of scientists even if we don’t have a “labor shortage” of scientists. Science (research in general) is a pretty classic example of a public good. It has all sorts of benefits to society as a whole which can’t always be provided for by the private sector. So it may very well be that we need more scientists even if we can’t employ all the people who currently have STEM degrees as it is.

      • DocAmazing

        I think that you are describing a shortage of funding for basic research rather than a shortage of scientists. Provide adequate grants and facilities for the scientists that are currently driving cabs and waiting tables and you’ll see all kinds of research.

  • NeonTrotsky

    Anecdotally, I would say this seems like it’s probably true. I also think that at least part of the myth comes from a disconnect about the types of STEM jobs that there is demand for. People major in a STEM field and think that they’ll get a nice position running their own lab/project for some company, but in truth they’ll end up effectivly as a grunt worker working in one of these labs or projects.

    My impression is that a lot of this is coming from engineering and science departments themselves, which obviously don’t want to drive people(and funding) away from them.

  • Mike G

    The real offenders are the US branches of Indian outsourcers where the large majority of employees (in the thousands) are H1-Bs doing grunt programming/sysadmin for substandard pay. There was legislation afoot a couple of years ago to limit the total number or percentage of H1-Bs at any one company but it died due to the usual corporatist-whore slant of congress.

    • Tyro

      This is the absolute truth. The bulk of H1-B visas are being handed out to low-level “body shops” that providing technical contracting services of system administrators and basic database programming, something which there is a huge surplus of Americans available to do.

      • BubbaDave

        The original purpose of the H1B was to allow American companies to poach top talent from other countries. One of the smartest people I know got hired away from the University of New South Wales by Google– I assume on an H1B visa– and worked there for a few years before jumping to a startup where he’s now the CTO. That’s exactly how that visa ought to be used.

        To quote myself from the previous thread:
        I’d like again to propose my H1B fix — unlimited H1B visas, but
        1) Sponsoring company has to pay prevailing wage for that skillset or $100k per year, adjusted upward (but not downward) by the government’s cost of living index and indexed to inflation, whichever is greater
        2) H1B visa holders have a 3 month grace period where they can legally remain in the US while they look for another sponsor if they voluntarily or involuntarily leave their previous sponsor.

        • recurse

          If your friend was an Australian Citizen, then it would be an E-3 visa. This is a special visa available only to Australian Citizens, but is pretty much automatic if you have a college degree and are applying for work in that field.

          This class of visas was created in exchange for Australia subverting our own laws and becoming a subsidiary of the US digital media and IT industries in the last US/Australia Free Trade Agreement.

  • howard

    i noted, in scott’s bill plaschke is silly about tom brady column, that i’m in la a lot on business and always buy the hard-copy la times when i’m there, and one thing i’ve learned is that plaschke is hack.

    but another thing i’ve learned is that michael hiltzik is outstanding and deserves wider recognition.

  • Orphos

    Don’t worry, after years of studying the problem the NSF has just announced that there’s no real definition of the STEM workforce.

    Most of the “lack of STEM-degree’d workers” boils down to credential inflation and a strong desire on the part of companies to do absolutely zero on-the-job training, IMO.

    Worthless dreck, all around.

    • BubbaDave

      Yep, and ironically, the widespread use of H1B visas is hurting because software architects grow from developers who grow from junior devs. Devops grow from sysadmins who grow from help desk roles. When we decide to cheap out and contract out those junior roles, we ensure we’ll have to contract out the senior roles as well in a few years.

      • guthrie

        Exactly. I have a suspicion that is a major problem a lot of companies have, not just in IT but in say chemistry related stuff. They employ poorly paid grunts, then have to spend a fortune recruiting someone to be a boss later, or else try to recruit from inside and all they have are grunts to choose from.

      • marduk

        So much this. You are just not good at development or admin when you graduate with a degree, period. If you’re lucky you’ve learned a number of mistakes to avoid and a general theoretical background. (and some good google-fu)

        I’m sure that’s true to some extent in all fields, but with software dev and IT you really learn by doing.

  • LWA

    My field of architecture tends to not have the lobbying influence of Silicon Valley.
    So during the periodic building booms like in 2002-2007, we found ourselves with a drastic shortage of qualified architects and technical drafters.

    Like the suckers we are, we responded a market shortage by paying more for young architects, in some cases throwing hiring bonuses of $5000 to recent grads.

    If that “rent Is Too Damn High” guy was smart, he would place articles by grafter front men “thought leaders” bemoaning the housing shortage, and advocate that the government increase the available supply via a massive WPA construction program.

    • Barry_D

      “Like the suckers we are, we responded a market shortage by paying more for young architects, in some cases throwing hiring bonuses of $5000 to recent grads.”

      Gosh, a 10% signing bonus for somebody working on multi-million $ projects?

  • postmodulator

    Where’s that dude from VMWare to disprove these numbers with his anecdotes?

    • Ahuitzotl

      been laid off, I’m guessing.

    • DonN

      He is crying at the stupid stories people like you tell themselves. Here are some real salary numbers for recent H1Bs
      http://www.myvisajobs.com/Reports/2015-H1B-Visa-Sponsor.aspx

      You can look through all the tech companies by name (MSFT, Intel, Qualcomm, VMware, Amazon, Apple, Google) and see average salaries – all well over $100k. You can also look at the numbers by title (assistant professor at 90k is number 13.) Those are real numbers. Not people telling themselves two decade old stupid stories about 1000 qualified applicants being turned down for an H1b who works cheap. It is a pain to sponsor an H1b and it has significant legal costs for a large company. The main issue with H1bs is they aren’t transferable and if you loose your job you have to find something immediately or leave. I don’t know any large American tech company that wouldn’t be happy to see those restrictions go away.

      In the last twenty years most of the people I work and socialize with are immigrants. A thread like this is just bizarre. They haven’t stolen anybody’s job and they certainly don’t work for cheap. Our country is better for them being here. Anybody graduating from an American college should just be given a green card.
      DonN

      • Origami Isopod

        It’s funny, this thread’s full of people with real-life experience in the tech industry whose stories completely contradict yours.

        • DonN

          This thread is certainly full of lots of funny stories most of which contradict the salary data posted.
          DonN

          • ColBatGuano

            Your faith in their reporting is touching.

      • JL

        The Economic Policy Institute says that 80% of H-1B workers are underpaid. It also calls out some specific companies that make heavy use of H-1Bs, and underpay those workers.

        This isn’t about whether the H-1B guest workers are good people, or contribute to their communities, or whether they’re “stealing” jobs. It’s about how corporations are using this guest worker program to screw over both American workers and guest workers.

        Anybody graduating from an American college should just be given a green card.

        This seems fine to me as long as we also boost the opportunities for non-college-grads to immigrate (whatever I think of the high-skilled guest worker program, the low-skilled one is far worse). Give a lot more workers green cards. That let them live here permanently and have the same rights as workers that other American workers do. Not some damn guest worker visa.

        • DonN

          There are definitely some abuses with the contracting houses like TATA and Infosys and a small set of similar firms. Even in those cases the net result in salary impact to local workers is far less than EPI suggests. Most of these H1B holders get hired out either as contractors or take on short term projects at around the prevailing rate for other companies. It is certainly profitable for the contracting houses to pocket the (substantial) difference between what they charge and what they pay. Also the people working for the contracting houses typically don’t have a clear path to a green card. These issues could be cleaned up just by enforcing H1B rules. It would be a win all around since they use up H1Bs that would otherwise go directly to tech firms that directly hire and sponsor for green cards.

          We should just allow H1Bs to more easily transfer between jobs.

          DonN.

          • Rattus Norvegicus

            Tata and Infosys and those would be the two largest employers of H1B (Wipro at #3 is also well known as an abuser…). Hmm, kind of shoots a hole in your argument, eh?

      • wengler

        Not to contradict your stellar pro-insourcing message, but it’s not ‘loose’ it’s ‘lose’. Most under-30s seem determined to change the spelling, but you can’t because it’s a whole ‘nother word.

  • cpinva

    “As a historian in one of the disdained departments by university administration, watching the chickens come home to roost on this when all the STEM graduates can’t get good jobs is going to be interesting.”

    I assume they’ll all go to law school, get an associates position with a big law firm, and make partner in five years. that’s how it works, isn’t it? anyway, someone told me that.

    this “critical shortage” of people with STEM degrees has been going on since I was a child, in the early 60’s, and has never let up. that’s what prompted the H1B program to begin with, the fear that we were falling behind the Soviet Union, which itself began with the launch of Sputnik. the entire US gov’t totally lost its collective mind and, with the urging of the defense industry, determined to spend a gazillion dollars to: 1. put a man on the moon., and 2. constantly work on newer/better/faster/more destructive defense systems.

    here we are, 50 years later, and we still have a “critical shortage” of STEM graduates, except we don’t, and never really did. this time around, we lack the Soviet Union as the boogy man, so “technology” is, itself, the primary motivator, staying ahead of the rest of the world our goal. we’ll do that, I guess, by draining every other country’s STEM graduates, so no one else has any.

  • ArchTeryx

    This is where, as usual, I chime in about being someone who bought into this sucker’s game in the late 1980s / early 1990s, went to grad school (twice!) got a Ph.D. in medical research, and now am on my second year of unemployment for the second time in a row in my life, with no prospects or hope in sight.

    It’s a lie. And I’m the warning. As has been said, there may be a few subfields of STEM (mostly engineering) that are high-demand, but most have as hard a time finding jobs as actors or musicians.

    • Bruce B.

      That sucks. :( I hope there’s a welcome break lying in wait for you.

  • Bruce Vail

    As a reporter, you quickly lean that when industry folk talk about worker shortages, what they usually mean is a shortage of cheap workers. You’ll sometimes read, for example, that the trucking industry is facing a shortage of drivers. What they mean is that there is a shortage of men who will work 50-70 hours a week for $40,000 a year (no benefits). Once the compensation level reaches the zone where a driver can actually support a family, the shortage disappears.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    Anecdote, sure, but in my 100-odd class in medical school, 3 are engineers in their mid-30s (2 electrical, one aerospace).

    • Same here. There were 2 engineers in my med school class of 40, and that was in 1974.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Nothng new under the Sun. It’s been this way since at least the 60s, with job ads that amounted to “Engineer, PhD and at least 15 years experience in project management, bleeding-edge semiconductor circuit design, <insert five or six very specific esoteric technologies and tools> Must be willing to relocate, pay <basically about 50% above minimum wage>”

    In other words, they found someone in Asia willing to work for slave wages just to get into the USA and wrote the requirements around his resume. When nobody bothers to apply for the stated wages, they hire the immigrant.

    I was dealing with these road apples back when I entered the electronics industry in the 70s and it hasn’t changed since.

  • Tehanu

    I work for a company that made its biggest profits ever in 2014. Part of the reason for this was that they outsourced their I.T. in a big way. So of course, in 2015, we are now being told (repeatedly, in what seems to be an endless series of excruciatingly boring meetings communicating very little actual information) that we have to cut operating expenses. The biz-school buzzwords thrown around in these meetings would send George Orwell into a catatonic fit, so it’s a good thing he’s not still alive to hear them.

    • Mike G

      Bullshit Bingo is your friend —

      http://www.bullshitbingo.net/cards/bullshit/

      Click/Mark each block when you see or hear these words and phrases. When you get five blocks horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, stand up and shout “BULLSHIT!!!”.

      Back to the drawing board
      Empower[ment]
      Out Source
      Promotion
      Hardball
      30,000 foot view
      Reinvigorate
      Upside
      Automated
      Collaborate / Collaboration
      Secret sauce
      Lean In

      etc etc.

      • wengler

        If someone said ‘secret sauce’ at a business meeting I was in, I’d be well within my rights to punch them in the face.

  • upstate_cyclist

    How does one exactly square this (blatant?) corporate ploy with the laudable efforts to get more URMs (under-represented minorities) into STEM programs here in the US?

    And it’s a great strategy–wrap your labor strategy up in a nice passage of national security and Sinophobia, convince Congress, the president, and the entire world of higher education that universities are not serving the needs of important American industries, and *presto*, you can start driving down wages for highly skilled labor by flooding market at both ends, creating a massive oversupply of labor.

    Having finished Richard White’s Railroaded recently, and many thanks to Loomis for the recommendation, this somewhat reminds me of the conflict between white and Chinese laborers on transcontinental construction projects.

  • One of the many things that is driving the look for H1B visas is that American companies have decided that they shouldn’t have to train anyone.

    • Origami Isopod

      Yes, this.

  • Epsilon

    I’m a STEM grad from a tad over a decade ago, in Computer Science, and even before the financial crisis my efforts to get a job in my field ended up with me working at a gas station for $7.50 an hour (which was actually considerably higher than minimum wage at the time at least.) Until I left that to go teach for a year on a paltry stipend, only to then pretty much resign myself to going back to the gas station.

    I can only say how grateful I am to have wound up at a small, family owned company selling niche but quality software where nobody’s getting filthy rich but as an employee I am reasonably well valued and treated like a human being. Reading all of this kind of stuff makes me feel like I won the lottery even though on the surface I’m a failure at the American dream (I don’t make very much money and I’m not quite working directly in my field of study.)

  • njorl

    There is another aspect of the desire to import more STEM workers.

    Most of us work in teams to flesh out projects and create useful products from existing ideas. Some of us get one incredibly good idea that is worth a fortune. The more young people you have moving through your organization, the more likely you are to get ownership of such ideas. Foreign students are also much less likely to have established networks of contacts who might help them to market their ideas independently. Top American graduates all want to form startups so they get ownership of their ideas. Big companies hate that.

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