Concern that the US is losing its scientific and technological pre-eminence has been growing for some time, accelerated by recent economic turmoil, but a new report suggests that the issue goes beyond the need for more professional scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
The authors of the report from Georgetown University’s center on education and the workforce suggest that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) need to become more lucrative to retain the most talented individuals. The report also concludes that the deeper problem, beyond the question of whether the US has sufficient STEM labour, is a broader scarcity of workers with basic STEM competencies across the entire economy.
“There is this cry that there is a STEM shortage, but also the counterargument that if there really was a shortage then salaries would be going up”
– Al Teich, senior policy adviser at the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Although data indicate that wages for STEM workers are high and rising, the study says they are not growing as fast as other occupations that poach STEM talent such as doctors, managers and other professional careers that require a similar set of baseline skills in science and maths.
Immediately after graduation, 43 per cent of STEM graduates work in non-STEM occupations, and the attrition continues 10 years into the workforce when 46 per cent of workers with a degree in a STEM discipline have left the field, the report finds.
‘This is neither a surprise nor a bad thing,’ states Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at Duke University’s center for entrepreneurship and research. Having STEM as a foundation provides value in many professions, and it increases productivity and innovation for the nation as a whole, he says.
In fact, the report’s authors project that demand for workers in STEM occupations is increasing at every educational level, with the exception of some PhD researchers in academia. They estimate that there will be 2.4 million job openings for STEM workers in the US by 2018.
Roughly 65 per cent of bachelor’s degree recipients in STEM occupations earn more than master’s degree recipients in other occupations, the report says. While 47 per cent of bachelor’s degree recipients in STEM occupations earn more than PhDs in other occupations.
The report’s authors further suggest that the US cannot assume that the current system will continue to produce science and maths talent at the needed levels. They also warn that relying on foreign-born workers to fill the gaps is unlikely to work indefinitely – especially as global demand for STEM talent increases.
Al Teich, senior policy adviser at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the data have always been contradictory on the state of the US’s STEM workforce. ‘There is this cry that there is a shortage, but also the counterargument that if there really was a shortage then salaries would be going up more than they have been,’ he tells Chemistry World. ‘It is a confusing picture and it has been for a long time.’
Ron Hira, a public policy expert with the Rochester Institute of Technology, US, says it’s fine to train more people with STEM capabilities, even if they don’t end up working in these fields. However, he points out that these are very expensive degrees. ‘Who will fund all of those additional STEM degrees – the lab space and higher salaries,’ Hira asks, noting that students are ‘voting with their feet’.
But some, like Wadhwa, argue that the real problem is that 40 per cent of US master’s degrees and 60 per cent of its PhDs are going to foreign nationals because Americans don’t find them worthwhile.
From a UK perspective, the RSC says it wants to see more STEM graduates because of the huge benefits they confer upon the country’s economy, and to society as a whole. David Phillips, president of the RSC, cites results from a report commissioned by the society, which found that the chemistry contributes £250 billion to the UK economy every year.
‘One of every five pounds in the UK economy is dependent on developments in chemical science research and the chemical-reliant industries supported six million jobs in 2007,’ Phillips tells Chemistry World. There has been a 19.4 per cent increase over the last five years in the number of students sitting chemistry A-level in the UK, he adds, saying the figure highlights the importance young people are placing on subjects of ‘great value and academic rigour’.
By Rebecca Trager
25 October 2011