It has become conventional wisdom that the US currently faces a shortage of science and engineering talent, in large part because our K-12 schools aren't getting the job done in the STEM fields. The economic future of the country lies in science and engineering, and there are jobs out there waiting to be filled by all sorts of specialized, educated, and talented workers.
But there simply are not enough math whizzes with pocket protectors out there to fill them, the thinking goes. Even President Obama has made spurring STEM education a sort of running pet subject.
But what if it is just not true? That's what Michael Teitelbaum, a research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School thinks.
Writing in The Atlantic, Teitelbaum says it is a myth.
"The truth is that there is little credible evidence of the claimed widespread shortages in the US science and engineering workforce," he writes.
While it is true that science and engineering jobs are important, they only comprise "a small fraction of the workforce," he says,
A collection of recent studies from reputable sources have not found any evidence of a widespread labor market shortage in science and engineering jobs, and have concluded that US higher education "produces far more" of these workers than there are S&E jobs for them to fill.
If there were such a shortage then employers in these fields would be raising wages, but the evidence says that wages in many – but not all – S&E fields have been flat or growing slowly, and unemployment in these areas is higher than in many comparable fields, he writes.
While it is true that unemployment for high-skilled professional occupations is generally lower than the rest of the workforce, unemployment for scientists and engineers is higher than for comparable professions, such as dentists, physicians, or lawyers.
Unemployment for engineering is at 7 percent, computer science is 7.8 percent, and information systems is 11.7 percent, Teitelbaum notes.
Not only is there unemployment in S&E fields, but they may not be quite as attractive as everyone assumes, he says.
"Far from offering expanding attractive career opportunities, it seems that many, but not all, science and engineering careers are headed in the opposite direction: unstable careers, slow-growing wages, and high risk of jobs moving offshore or being filled by temporary workers from abroad."
Teitelbaum says that claims about shortages in S&E fields are not a new phenomenon, and in fact ever since World War II there have been five "rounds" of "alarm/boom/bust" cycles that were initiated by excessive alarms of shortages of these workers, and they tended to lead to periods of heavy layoffs.
"One thing we might reasonably conclude is that over the past six decades there has been no shortage of shortage claims.