Is the STEM Crisis a Hoax?

Published June 18, 2014

George Leef notes that: “Many Americans are convinced that the country faces a STEM crisis. That is, we don’t have enough teachers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, don’t have enough students taking degrees in those fields, and don’t have enough STEM workers to maintain the country’s leadership.”  But he argues it is an “imaginary crisis,” that subsidized STEM labor markets generate more graduates than there are STEM jobs for them.

This is a tough one to disentangle because in the absence of price controls in the labor markets, supply will meet demand, sort of. The “sort of” issues are the key, and part of the reason to shine a light on them is that coping with the STEM challenges has produced outcomes that remind us of one of the key roots of the problem of low K-12 school system performance, namely the student disengagement and mis-instruction that results from “out-of-field” teaching.  

Education Week founder Ronald Wolk reminds us, for example, that “69% of 5th to 8th graders are being taught (maybe) math by teachers without a mathematics degree or certificate, and 93% of those same students are being taught physical sciences by teachers with no physical science degree or certificate (p. 40 of 12/5/12 Education Week).” Indeed, Leef notes that 3.3 million of the United States’ 7.6 million STEM workers are “out of field”—they lack STEM degrees. So, the demand is being met at current prices, but perhaps via strategies or adaptations that leave a lot of room for improvement.

More Home-Grown Talent Needed
I’ll describe one such issue. A key element of the STEM supply and demand issue is the international nature of the market. Visit the STEM departments of any major university and you instantly become aware of the United States’ dependence on foreign-born talent. As a 2001 National Security Commission stated, the availability of foreign-born STEM talent is both a blessing and a national security concern.

By the way, don’t mark me as xenophobic. I am an immigrant. Along with the security risks of filling sensitive STEM jobs with people whose loyalty to the United States is in doubt, there is the question of inducing immigration of STEM talent to the United States—a direct blessing, but perhaps a “problem” indirectly, long-term? The talent-exporting countries’ losses may not be in our long-term interest.

My only “solution” to the trade-offs involved is to drastically improve and transform our K-12 system (all of it: public and private schooling providers, combined) so we can develop more STEM talent (and all other kinds) at home, according to labor market forces. I think that would mean a drop in STEM salaries, which would reduce the U.S. magnet for foreign-born STEM talent, plus increased use of STEM talent, including less need to pluck non-STEM folks out of other jobs to do STEM work.

John Merrifield ([email protected]) is a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin. This article is reprinted from the National Center for Policy Analysis blog, with permission. Iimage by Re:Publica.