Ten thousand. That’s how many more engineers President Barack Obama proclaimed in 2011 that the United States would have to produce each year to fill persistent shortages of skilled workers.
It was a pronouncement preceded—and that has been echoed since—by CEOs, technology associations, other politicians, and journalists.
But some economists and sociologists are questioning whether there really is a shortfall in the supply of engineers, or the math- and science-literate high school students who will be transformed into them.
“The data just don’t show a shortage,” says Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers who studies this question.
The dramatic numbers, the drumbeat of crisis, and the idea that the expensive higher-education system is not keeping up with the demand for workers have captured headlines (including ours).
“Unfortunately the real story is that dog bites man, not the other way around,” Salzman says.
He and others suggest that, among other things, what’s really driving the perception of a shortage is high turnover caused by increasing workloads and stagnant salaries, and employers’ desire to substitute cheaper foreign labor for the higher-priced domestic kind.
Meanwhile, they say, the number of high-school students who take high-level math and science, and their performance in those subjects, are improving, as intended, in response to national initiatives driven by earlier predictions of a skills gap.
The picture painted by the people who are claiming there’s a shortfall have obscured these facts, says Michael Handel, a sociologist at Northeastern University who is a workforce consultant to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
“You don’t get a homicide rate for a city by hanging out in the emergency room,” says Handel. “If you spend all your time with employers who are complaining, you will find a lot of complainers.”
A new report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is the latest to weigh in on the skills gap. It says the number of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math will rise by 26 percent between 2010 and 2020, and that, combined with retirements, this will leave 2.6 million such jobs—1.9 million in engineering alone—to be filled by the end of the decade. The center estimates that 94 percent will require college degrees, and that the number of graduates now being produced will not be sufficient to meet the demand.
But Handel and others point out that there have long been warnings of a mismatch between the number of engineering jobs requiring degrees and the number of workers who have them. It’s “a hardy perennial,” he says.
The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, or SCANS, appointed by the U.S. secretary of labor in 1990, for example, said that half of Americans lacked the educations they needed to find and hold jobs in technology and other fields, for instance. A National Academy of Sciences report in 2005 called Rising Above the Gathering Storm reached a similar conclusion.
“It keeps going through these cycles,” says Salzman. “And every time it’s raised, there are serious studies that are done, and they say, ‘We can’t find the shortage.”
That doesn’t mean employers have an easy time filling vacancies. Handel says this is partly due to increased turnover at a time when smaller numbers of workers are being asked to do more.
“There’s a fair amount of churning, because people can have their pick of jobs,” he says.
Overall, however, he says, while the unemployment rate of scientists and engineers has been lower than that of the workforce as a whole, “it has largely tracked the lower unemployment rate of B.A. holders and above, which is not what you’d expect if there were spot shortages. There hasn’t been a big increase in pay, either,” something that would also be expected if there were a skills gap.
Employers also previously offered worker training, Salzman says, but now expect that engineering schools will do it. When graduates don’t fit exactly into what companies need, he says, they respond that there are not enough qualified applicants.
There is some mismatch, Salzman concedes, as professional standards change faster than academic programs keep pace.
But, “Companies are now saying, ‘We want people ready to go from Day One, and therefore somebody else other than the employer needs to provide that training.’ That’s a dramatic change.”
In a new study of his own, Salzman says the argument that there’s a worker shortage allows employers to push for increasing the number of visas for foreign technology workers, who can be paid less than domestic employees.
“There’s been this track of pushing this message that we have to search the globe for talent. We can’t find it here,” he says.
Yet his research shows an increase in the math and performance of American high school students and in the number of undergraduates studying science and engineering.