Vivek Haldar

Is there a STEM worker shortage?

How do you reconcile the consistent cries of “not enough STEM workers” from industry with some recent studies that claim that there are plenty?

You must have seen the warning a thousand times: Too few young people study scientific or technical subjects, businesses can’t find enough workers in those fields, and the country’s competitive edge is threatened.

It pretty much doesn’t matter what country you’re talking about—the United States is facing this crisis, as is Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, China,Brazil, South Africa, Singapore, India…the list goes on. In many of these countries, the predicted shortfall of STEM (short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workers is supposed to number in the hundreds of thousands or even the millions…

And yet, alongside such dire projections, you’ll also find reports suggesting just the opposite—that there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs. One study found, for example, that wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have largely stagnated since 2000. Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM, and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers.

The flaw is in the assumption that every STEM degree holder is a qualified candidate for a STEM job. Carried through to its logical conclusion this implies that simply presenting a STEM degree should be enough to get one placed in a STEM job, which is absurd.

This becomes readily apparent if one has ever been on the evaluation side – grading students, or conducting interviews for jobs. I’ve been a TA for a number of CS classes while in grad school, and I’ve conducted many interviews for software engineer positions. Just from my narrow anecdotal window, it is amazing how many CS students just want to figure out the bare minimum to pass the class; and how many grads do not have a decent grasp of elementary algorithms and data structures, and are not comfortable with code.

When CEOs of tech companies complain that there are not enough STEM workers to fill their open positions, what they’re really saying is that it is very hard to find the right calibre candidate, the glut of credentialed STEM graduates notwithstanding.

Update: HN has some great comments, many from people in the trenches.