Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on May 24, 2013.
Republicans and Democrats appear to agree on at least one thing: that the United States is facing a STEM (science, technology engineering and math) crisis. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that he wants to “reward schools” that focus on STEM classes, for they are “the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.” And as far to the other end of the political spectrum as you can get, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas deemed May 6-12 to be the first ever “Celebration of STEM Education Week in Texas.”
I’m an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University — by all measures, a very STEM-oriented institution. I’m studying history and sociology, and it’s quite common for students like me to envy those with academic talents enabling them to major in fields like chemical engineering or neuroscience. Bleak job reports and doomsday rhetoric from our nation’s leaders reinforce this idea that maybe the remainder of us studying the liberal arts are somehow putting a drain on our society, and preventing the United States from “competing effectively” with other nations.
And yet, it turns out that the job prospects for my STEM-oriented classmates may not be so great either.
Recently, the Economic Policy Institute released a report that challenged conventional wisdom; the report says that over half of students with STEM degrees each year are unable to find STEM employment upon graduation. Additionally, STEM wages have not budged in over a decade. Stagnant wages and low rates of STEM job placement strongly indicate a surplus of STEM workers, not a dearth. The problem points to a lack of jobs, not of qualified workers.
Of course, science, technology, engineering and math are important fields, and we should aim to provide exemplary education for students interested in such subjects. But there is a danger in creating a false hope that if only we got everyone to switch from English to math, our economy would suddenly soar. Unemployment in the United States is at 7.5 percent, which is 3.2 points higher than the pre-recession low. The deep-seated unemployment in our country will require not only job training in STEM fields but also things like monetary and fiscal stimulus to boost employment during this rough period.
The alleged STEM crisis has also been a popular point of agreement among lawmakers and tech moguls as Congress struggles to draft an immigration reform bill. It’s been politically safe to say that we must carve an easy path for STEM foreign workers to come to our country in order to boost our global competitiveness — in fact, one of the few amendments accepted in the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration bill this week was a provision to increase the number of visas for such high-skill workers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently launched a new organization, called FWD.us, to bolster support for, among other things, an increase in the number of visas granted to foreign skilled workers.
However, Science Careers, a branch of Science magazine, reported that the bill would make already congested labor markets even more competitive with the influx of foreign workers. Additionally, STEM labor force expert Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who spoke in April at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding the proposed immigration legislation, adamantly refutes the notion that there is an overall STEM shortage in the United States. He argues that H1-B and other worker visa programs have lowered wages and allowed for more labor exploitation in domestic STEM markets.
The 844-page immigration bill would quadruple or quintuple the number of high-skill visas currently allowed in the United States. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Elizabeth Dwoskin writes, “If you’re a recent college graduate, a doctoral candidate, or a highly skilled professional who has been in the job market the past few years, you know it’s rough out there. But if the immigration overhaul proposed in the Senate … becomes law, it’s likely to get a lot rougher.”
The bill would be great for businesses like Mr. Zuckerberg’s that are looking to hire talented workers at lower prices. However, for American citizens graduating with STEM degrees and struggling to find employment today, it may not look so great.
Science, technology, engineering and math are important skills in the 21st century economy. But unfortunately, even they turn out to be no guarantee.