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STEM Labor Shortage: Myth or Reality?

Professors, trade organizations and technology companies weigh in on this question as the U.S. continues to push for more STEM graduates.

Indiana University Bloomington's Bobby B. Schnabel doesn't like the spring as much as the rest of the year. Though that may initially seem a bit strange, he has good reason. 

As the informatics and computing dean, Schnabel flies to Silicon Valley often to build relationships with tech leaders. And toward the end of the school year, they start asking him his least favorite question: Do you have any students we can hire? 

"Part of my job as a dean of a big school is to know a bunch of the IT CEOs," Schnabel said, "and sometimes they'll contact me directly in May saying, 'We're looking for people.' And we don't have people in May — they're all hired."

By the time the university holds its main career fair in early September, the best students are already taken. Of this year's graduating class, 245 undergraduate and masters' students answered a university survey, which found that just over half of them lined up a job before graduation, while less than a quarter of them decided to continue their education at a higher level.

But while Schnabel identifies a labor shortage in technology rather than STEM as a whole, not everyone believes we have an undersupply of college graduates and other laborers in this field. In fact, two schools of thought compete against each other on this issue, and both of them cite data to back up their claims. This raises the question, "Is the STEM labor shortage reality, or simply a myth?"  

STEM Shortage a 'Web of Deceit'?

At the University of California at Davis, Norman S. Matloff, a computer science professor, says the STEM shortage is really a web of deceit designed to trick the whole country.

"There's a giant deception, a huge public relations concerted effort being engaged on the various parties with a vested interest to implant in the American consciousness this idea that we have a STEM labor shortage," Matloff said.

Many positions in these fields don't even require a college degree, much less a doctorate. In fact, less than 5 percent of jobs in the technology field call for high levels of knowledge.

And the technology field has seen success stories at a high level from people who never earned a college degree.

STEM Stats, Views and Studies

Both schools of thought on the STEM labor shortage reference different studies to back up their point of view. Here are a few studies for further reading on the subject.

Take Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple and Larry Ellison of Oracle. All of them started college, but dropped out. Now Gates and Ellison are two of the top five richest people in the world.

That said, bachelor's degree production in computer science saw double-digit growth between 2009 and 2012. And last year, colleges awarded nearly 2,000 doctorate degrees, the highest number ever reported in the Computing Research Association's Taulbee Survey.  

Yet the demand isn't there, some argue.

"There is still benefit to inspiring kids to be passionate and excited about STEM disciplines," said Bob Sun, CEO of Suntex International Inc., which helps students build a solid foundation in math. "But the idea that we need more STEM graduates to meet this unfulfilled demand — I don't think it's quite exactly what it's cracked up to be."

Displaced Americans: Competing With Foreigners

A professional society called the Programmers Guild argues that the U.S. is producing plenty of computer science graduates and has enough older workers to fill positions — they're just not getting hired. It says companies won't hire workers over the age of 35, and that they hire foreign laborers through temporary work visas to bring wages down. 

In specialty occupations, these H-1B visas allow employers to hire highly skilled foreign workers regardless of whether there are qualified U.S. residents or citizens willing and able to fill these jobs. The employer files a visa application for these workers, which allows them to work for that employer over three years, or up to six years if they receive an extension.

When these visa holders enter the country, they could stay permanently depending on whether their employer files a petition on their behalf.

“If you're a foreign worker being sponsored for a green card, you are trapped, you cannot go to another employer, because you'd have to start all of that all over again, and it's just unthinkable," Matloff said. "So the employers like that. This immobility is huge."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issues 65,000 H-1B visas each year to fill positions in specialty occupations such as computer programming. Plus, it provides 20,000 exemptions for students who earned advanced degrees in the U.S.

"Over the past 10 years, we've been bringing more H-1Bs than the job market has been increasing by," said Kim Berry, president of the Programmer's Guild. "And so I think it's no question that Americans are being displaced by this."

The companies that hire these workers beg to differ. They're calling on Congress to increase the cap so they can bring in more foreign workers. But in addition to increasing the cap, companies such as Microsoft also want to invest in education to build the U.S. pipeline of computer scientists, said Jack Chen, senior attorney of compliance and advocacy for Microsoft Corp.

At the end of February, the company had more than 6,400 open jobs in the U.S., half of which were for research and development positions.

"There really is a hunger and a thirst for talent," Chen said, "that has not been satiated by the workers we have available in the U.S. market."

Both schools of thought hold such opposing views that they may not agree anytime soon. And that leaves us to decide for ourselves where we stand on the STEM labor issue.

Editor's note: We clarified the explanation of H-1B visas and added several more resources to the sidebar for further reading.