For half, STEM degrees lead to other jobs

Census data provides some detail, and also raises questions about whether there's a U.S. shortage of STEM workers

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Rothwell doesn't believe that there is an oversupply of STEM workers. In fact, he argues that there are shortages in some areas and criticizes the Census data as too narrow.

Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said the Census report adds another source of "compelling evidence" that "there is no credible evidence of generalized shortages in the STEM workforce."

Even in the industries from which the most vocal shortage claims come -- the computer, math and statistics fields -- "the Census Bureau report concludes that only about one-half of bachelor's graduates in these fields actually are employed in STEM occupations," he said.

Teitelbaum did acknowledge that "some specific occupations, at specific points in time, in specific geographic areas, have more-than-average difficulty in recruitment" but, he explained, "that is always the case in labor markets." His recent book, Falling Behind, Boom Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent (Princeton, 2014), finds a history of industry calls for more STEM workers leading to an oversupply.

Stan Sorscher, labor representative at the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), a union representing over 24,000 scientists, engineers and other professionals in the aerospace industry, said there are three factors that discourage people from pursuing long-term STEM careers.

The first is age discrimination, particularly in software occupations. Second is the number of contingent positions and third is the use of foreign workers holding H-1B visas, who tend to take entry-level or near-entry-level jobs and thereby make it difficult for people who want to start out in a STEM field, he said.

Sorscher, who has a Ph.D. in physics, said that said that STEM careers are "osmotic," in the sense that almost any career path out of STEM is one-way.

"You may have many career options from a STEM job, but it's very difficult to change jobs into a STEM occupation." Any time not in the field is career-limiting, he explained.

"Each time an employer announces layoffs or offshores work," Sorscher said, "in the turmoil, a certain fraction of the STEM workforce will move into other occupations."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter (@DCgov), or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. You can follow her on Twitter (@sharon000) and on Google+, or subscribe to her RSS feeds: articles and blogs.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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