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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 The nation’s outdated limits and “convoluted green-card process,” she said, had left firms like hers “hampered in hiring the talent that they need.”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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