An event advertised as "ITIF Debate: Is There a STEM Worker Shortage?" produced, amid continuing fundamental disagreement and a number of familiar arguments, "a nice surprise … some agreement" on issues relevant to aspects of the long-running controversy.

CREDIT: Sharon Farmer
Jonathan Rothwell

That description came from one of the debaters, Hal Salzman, professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He joined Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, in arguing that a generalized shortage does not exist. Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Information Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C., and Jonathan Rothwell, senior research associate at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., propounded the opposing view.

The 12 March event also provided some intriguing insights into the dynamics of the controversial issue. Invitations came from ITIF, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. think tank "whose mission is to formulate and promote public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity internationally," (according to its website) and whose board of directors includes representatives of a number of large high-technology companies, the event took place at a National Academies building in Washington D.C. (A press release from Rutgers states that the event was co-hosted by ITIF, Rutgers, and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), "a non-profit, non-partisan think tank ... created in 1986 to broaden discussions about economic policy to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers," according to its website, and whose board includes representatives of labor unions. Hira is affiliated with EPI.) Kevin Finneran, editor-in-chief of the journal Issues in Science and Technology, moderated. There was no attempt to determine a winner, nor is there any way of knowing whether the presentations changed minds in the audience.

Points of agreement

Robert Atkinson

Of the two major points of agreement, one is widely held and at first appeared uncontroversial: The United States must improve science and math education for low-performing students, who come primarily from poor and minority communities. Atkinson, however, tied this goal to a need to assert the existence of a general shortage. Statements that the United States produces a sufficient number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers undermine efforts for better education, Atkinson claimed: "If you don't say there's a shortage, you don't drive improvement." He expressed skepticism that some who argue against a STEM shortage even share the desire to raise American students' educational levels. While seeing shortage claims as a vital rhetorical tool, Atkinson consistently argued that a shortage does exist.

Salzman objected to that linkage. The existence of a shortage and the need for educational excellence for all students are completely separate issues, he said, and combining them prevents effective focus on real problems. America's finest school systems produce large numbers of students who perform among the world's best in math and science, he noted. The country doesn't need a generalized push to raise standards everywhere but rather concentrated help for the poor and minority students who lag far behind. Beyond that, he said, a significant oversupply of workers in many STEM fields is discouraging able young Americans from pursuing STEM careers, which appear less attractive than higher-paying fields such as finance. Atkinson and Rothman disputed this point.

Courtesy of Rutgers University
Hal Salzman

The second area of agreement concerns an issue far less prominent in discussions of the scientific labor force: the inadequacy of career development and continuing education for existing workers. Companies now invest much less in training their employees than they did in the past, Atkinson noted. In the computer field, the skills in highest demand are generally the newest, Rothwell said. Without career development training, older workers who are perfectly capable of acquiring those skills have great difficulty staying up-to-date. Companies find it cheaper to hire young workers, frequently from abroad, than to train their existing staff, Hira said. This leads to employers "complaining about shortages while laying off" older employees—who may have to train their foreign replacements on the way out, he added.

No explicit attention was paid to the question of what effect better worker training would have on the perceived shortage, and the STEM debate. Salzman observed that many information technology (IT) employers have developed a strong "preference" for importing guest workers over retaining or hiring domestic workers, and this has "fundamentally altered" the economics of the IT industry. Colleges, he added, have tailored programs, especially at the master's degree level, to prepare such workers to enter the U.S. labor market. Hira noted that guest workers now constitute a very large portion of IT workers in America and fill the majority of new positions each year. Atkinson, however, alluded to "some studies" showing that guests receive higher wages than domestic employees. (Atkinson wasn't specific at that point, but probably was referring to "Are Foreign IT Workers Cheaper? U.S. Visa Policies and Compensation of Information Technology Professionals," by Sunil Mithas and Henry Lucas, of the University of Maryland, College Park, which was published in the May 2010 issue of Management Science.)

Continuing contention

There is fundamental disagreement, Atkinson observed, over the purpose of labor force policy. "What is the major goal," he asked, "equity and opportunity [for STEM workers], or innovation and growth" for the economy? Clearly favoring the latter, he stated that higher wages for STEM workers "are not progressive" because lower STEM wages would permit low-income Americans to pay less for products.

Courtesy of Ron Hira and the Rochester Institute of Technology
Ron Hira

Other insights into the dynamics of the controversy also emerged. A lack of generally agreed-upon analytical frameworks impedes constructive discussion, Hira said. He called for "sustained, sober, and systematic data collection" based on generally recognized definitions. As if to demonstrate this need, the two sides traded often detailed criticisms of data sources and analysis. Points raised include which data sets to use, whether to base estimates on numbers of advertised vacancies or of actual hires, the tendency to conflate guest workers with immigrants and market wage with prevailing wage, and whether recession years are appropriate baselines for normal employment levels. Studies need to take account of "multiple STEM labor markets" representing distinct fields, of which "some do well, some do poorly," Hira argued. Rothwell, on the other hand, presented data relating to the population of STEM graduates as a whole.

Effective discussion also requires being "very clear about political motivations" and about the interests of the dispute's "multiple stakeholders," Hira said. Some of these motivations are obvious: Companies seek to reduce labor costs, and workers want to "limit competition" for available jobs. But universities also have important economic interests, Hira continued, which generally are "not known to the public."

Employers have had much more success in advancing their interests than workers have, Hira noted, citing as an example the immensely influential 2007 National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. The committee that wrote the report included many members associated with large corporations, major universities, and research organizations, but "not a single person representing the American worker," he said.

You can view the 93-minute debate below.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.