Bill Gates isn’t usually thought of as a guy given to fantasy, but that’s how an incisive opinion piece on high-skill immigration published in USA Today characterizes his audacious claims of a talent shortage in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, even as the company he founded (Microsoft) is laying off 18,000 workers—the most ever.
Written by an all-star lineup of STEM labor-force experts whose names are familiar to Science Careers readers—Ron Hira, Paula Stephan, Hal Salzman, Michael Teitelbaum, and Norm Matloff—the piece outlines the compelling macro-level case against the existence of a shortage and argues that proposed legislation to increase the number of high-skill workers admitted from abroad is unnecessary and would be harmful.
Meanwhile, at his Upon Closer Inspection blog, Matloff gives an intriguing micro-level examination of why one particular firm is facing what it claims to be a talent shortage that requires admitting more workers from abroad. The problem isn’t a scarcity of candidates, though, but a scarcity of workers willing to stay on the job given the company’s working conditions and salaries. It’s a common tactic: Rather than pay what the market requires—the rate that would ensure a steady supply of workers on the open market—companies seek ways to force wages down by increasing supply, or try to find workers who are willing to work for less. Anyone who took Econ 101 knows that such tactics, were they widely employed, would suppress incentives for entering the field, further reducing the supply of workers from conventional sources.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, in late June the Royal Society called for “A-level” exams to “be scrapped and replaced with a new baccalaureate-style qualification with compulsory maths and science up to the age of 18,” according to the U.K. newspaper The Independent. The goal, writes reporter Sarah Cassidy, is to redress what the Royal Society calls a “persistent shortfall of youngsters taking science and maths-based courses after the age of 16 in the UK.” The society’s ultimate concern is that the United Kingdom won’t be able to fill the country’s need for “science, technology and engineering professionals.”
What’s the connection between these events? Instead of relying on real opportunity—abundant jobs, good working conditions, and salary premiums—to attract young people to scientific and technical fields, Gates and the Royal Society (in the person of Sir Martin Taylor, chair of the society’s “vision committee”) aim to intervene to boost the supply.
In response to the Royal Society statement, Adam Caller—director of Tutors International, a British firm that provides private instruction to school students—issued a statement of his own. Caller agrees that U.K. students should take more classes in science and math. However, Caller—a former physics teacher, who likely has more (and more direct) contact with young students than either Taylor or Gates—“claims there are not enough jobs to go around,” the statement says. There is “limited opportunity for people looking for meaningful, world-class jobs in the sciences” in the United Kingdom.
Caller apparently recognizes that incentives to enter scientific and technical work must be sufficient to offset the challenges of training and to reward tech workers’ superior skills; the rewards must match the sacrifices. “By focusing on the jobs and making them more attractive to students financially but also in their perceived value and progression opportunities, we can perhaps entice more students to continue studying these subjects” after secondary school, Caller incisively suggests.
If not enough young people are entering scientific and technical fields, it’s because the incentives aren’t adequate. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better way to discourage young people from embarking on scientific or technical careers than highly visible mass layoffs at one of the country’s largest and best-known tech firms, coupled with a plea to admit more immigrant labor.