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Is there really a shortage of technical professionals?

All of us are familiar with what I call here the Conventional Portrait of the U.S. science and engineering workforce. It appears frequently in the media, in statements by corporate leaders and lobbyists, and in Congressional testimony. It may be summarized briefly as follows:

1. There are serious shortages or shortfalls in the U.S. of scientists and engineers--either current shortages/ shortfalls, or "looming" ones--that bode ill for the creativity and competitiveness of the U.S. economy.

2. The numbers of newly-educated scientists and engineers graduating from U.S. universities are insufficient for the needs of U.S. employers, this despite the fact that the science careers they are offering are growing rapidly and are attractive and well-remunerated. It is this insufficiency that is forcing U.S. high-tech firms to offshore increasing fractions of their R&D work, and to hire increasing numbers of scientists and engineers from abroad to "fill the gaps."

3. These argued insufficiencies of supply are due to the weakness (or even "failure") of U.S. K-12 education in science and math.

4. U.S. students are showing declining interest in science and engineering careers, even though these are attractive and growing robustly.

5. The "postdoc" status found in growing numbers in most U.S. research universities offers an excellent training opportunity for young scientists before they enter into the promising academic research careers that lie before them.

6. Needed solutions include large government investments to increase the number of students completing majors in science and engineering fields, increases in Federal research dollars to these fields, and increases in the R&D tax credit for U.S. employers.

Two prominent examples of such portraits can easily be found in the 2005 report Tapping America's Potential, led by the Business Roundtable and signed onto by 14 other business associations; and in the 2006 National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which was the basis for substantial parts of what eventually evolved into the America COMPETES Act. The 2005 Tapping America's Potential report called for an array of policies and expenditures to "double the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates by 2015," i.e., a 100 percent increase in 10 years. They were very forthright about this, with the core goal appearing right on the report's cover.

The Realities

"Conventional" does not necessarily mean "correct," of course. Perhaps surprisingly, the declarative statements summarized above actually are largely inconsistent with the findings of most researchers who have come to the subject with an open mind. These include leading researchers at the Rand Corporation, Harvard University, National Bureau of Economic Research, Urban Institute, Georgetown University, Georgia State University, Stanford University, etc. Here is a similarly brief summary of the conclusions from such research:

1. There are no objective data suggesting general "shortages" of scientists and engineers. (Indeed some researchers suggest the empirical evidence points more toward surpluses than shortages.) There is much variation among fields, and some evidence of hiring difficulties in a few specific locales and in some sectors and technologies that are new or growing rapidly.

2. There are substantially more scientists and engineers graduating from U.S. universities than can find attractive career openings in the U.S. workforce (1). Indeed, U.S. careers in science and engineering appear to be relatively unattractive--relative, that is, to alternative professional career paths available to U.S. graduates with strengths in science and math (2).

3. Students in the off-criticized K-12 system appear to be studying science and math subjects more, and performing better in them, over time; nor are U.S. secondary school students lagging far behind comparable students in economically-competitive countries (3).

4. Large and remarkably stable percentages of entering freshmen continue to report that they plan to complete majors in science and engineering fields; however, only about half of these ultimately do so (4).

5. The postdoc population, its numbers growing rapidly in U.S. universities and increasingly recruited from abroad, looks more like a pool of low-cost research lab workers with limited career prospects than trainees in a high-quality educational program for soon-to-be academic researchers. Indeed, if the truth be told, only a very small percentage of those in the current postdoc pool have any realistic prospects of gaining a regular faculty position.

6. Absent changes in the ways Federal support is provided for scientific research and education, rapid increases in research funding are likely to further destabilize career paths for junior scientists. Increased research budgets expand the "slots" for Ph.D. students and postdocs who conduct the funded research, but provide little growth in career positions (see below).

Why a Washington Perennial?

So why, you might ask, do we continue to hear energetic reassertions of the Conventional Portrait of "shortages," shortfalls, failures of K-12 science and math teaching, declining interest among U.S. students, and the need to import more foreign scientists and engineers?

These pronouncements may best be understood as expressions of interests by interest groups and their lobbyists. Interest groups that are well-organized and funded have the capacity to make their claims heard, either directly or via echoes in the media. Meanwhile, those who are not well-organized and funded are free to express their views, but only as individuals. The interest groups that continue to make the conventional case include:

* Some employers of scientists and engineers, and their industry associations (goals: ample pools of qualified hires that minimize recruiting costs and need to increase wages and benefits?)

* Some universities and university associations (goals: need enrollments to justify graduate programs, and need graduate and postdoctoral research assistants to conduct funded lab research?)

* Some funding agencies (goals: seek convincing national-interest arguments for increases in agency budgets?)

* Some immigration lawyers and their associations (goals: larger numbers of employment-based visas, with legal fees paid by financially-able employers rather than by migrants?)

While some critics see such interest group activities as immoral, in fact none of those involved intend any harm to anyone. There is no evil intent, nor malice, nor exploitation. They are simply promoting their interests, as interest groups should be expected to do.

This does not mean that the interests of such groups and the national interest are the same. Moreover, there are few organized groups that represent the career interests of professional scientists or engineers--not to mention the future interests of those who are still students and who might, or might not, choose to pursue such careers. Lobbying on these questions has long been dominated by the interests that promote the Conventional Portrait.

Perverse Funding for Science Graduate Education

Put simply, the way Federal funds currently support graduate science education is a recipe for instability. It is a complex system with built-in positive feedback loops, and therefore a system that tends toward unstable equilibria; if funding growth is rapid enough, one can readily foresee there will be boom first, followed by bust, unless rapid budget increases can be continued indefinitely.

A large majority of biomedical Ph.D. students and postdocs supported by the National Institutes of Health are financed by research grant funds, not by education or "training" funds. If NIH research funding is increased in response to too-low success rates for grant applicants, one effect is funding for more Ph.D. students and postdocs who are recruited by NIH grant recipients to do the bench research work. This means that, after a lag of several years, there will be more recent Ph.D.s and postdocs seeking research employment and applying for NIH research grants. This in turn tends to reduce the grants success rate going forward.

Something exactly like this is now underway--with a vengeance--in the biomedical research sector. In part due to low and declining grant success rates, especially for younger scientists who are seen as the future leaders of science, Congress increased the NIH research budget by fully 100 percent in only the five years from 1998--2003--on the order of 14-15 percent annual increases. The absolute increase was also large: from $13.6 billion to $27.3 billion. If inflation is taken into account, the "real" percent and absolute increases were of course lower, but still very large.

Following the promised doubling by 2003, the NIH budget first stagnated and then declined somewhat in real terms. The result is what many in the biomedical field are calling a "hard landing," and what others call a "funding crisis." Researchers are spending more and more of their time writing proposals, the stability of research careers is imperiled, and some labs face the prospect of closing down.

Much of what is now happening was not only foreseeable, but was actually foreseen. Dynamic modeling of the U.S. Ph.D. and research systems undertaken by Goldman and Massy (5) at Stanford and Rand during the 1990s showed that:

* Ph.D. admission numbers are insensitive to external labor market conditions (p. 22); instead, they are driven by the internal needs of university departments (p. 20).

* Simulations show that 2 percent/year growth in research funding, followed by a stop to such growth, produces first a short-term increase in employment for recent Ph.D.s, followed within a few years by declines in employment for recent Ph.D.s (pp. 42 ff).

An unrelated but prescient article by prominent observers of the biomedical research scene, published by Science magazine in 2002, anticipated correctly what was to take place several years later, following the final 14 percent annual budget increase at NIH in 2003. The authors estimated that the structure of biomedical funding means that continuing budget increases of at least 6-8 percent annually are needed to avoid serious negative consequences (6).

Two of the fundamental goals that underlay the doubling of the NIH budget--first, to increase in a meaningful way the overall success rates for grant applications, and second to greatly increase the very low and declining success rates being experienced by more junior grant applicants--were frustrated by the positive feedback loops inherent in the current funding structure. Funding success rates and career prospects did improve somewhat during the five years of rapid budget increases, but once the doubling had been completed proposal success rates quickly declined--and to levels even lower than before the budget doubling began. And the largest negative effects seem to have been concentrated among younger biomedical scientists (7).

What about the "looming" shortages that some forecast for the future? So far no one has been able to accurately forecast future labor market demand for highly-educated scientists and engineers more than a few years out--as an outstanding National Academies report on the topic concluded forcefully in 2000 (8). If anything, the challenges have become far more difficult as a result of the quite-recent movement toward offshoring of high-level R&D activities, the contours of which are still poorly measured and understood.

To this must be added the erratic paths and future uncertainties of R&D funding flows from the Federal government, the boom/bust cycles that characterize many important high-tech industries, and the uncertainties of Federal visa legislation. It would be very unwise indeed to premise any policy actions on the basis of "looming shortages" of scientists and engineers.

What Should NOT Be Done?

The NIH case may not tell us what should be done now, but it does offer valuable insights into what should NOT be done. Put simply, it would be wasteful and self-defeating to embrace actions to increase only the supply of scientists and engineers, unless these are coupled with serious measures to ensure that comparable increases occur in the demand for scientists and engineers. While supply-only actions might satisfy the demands of influential interest groups over the short term, the positive feedback loops in the current funding structure mean that there will likely be destructive effects over the medium term--deteriorating grant success rates and declining interest in science and engineering studies and careers among domestic students.

What Should Be Done?

One thing that could and should be done is to dramatically improve the "signals" about such careers that are publicly available to prospective students. At present, doctoral programs in many U.S. universities provide far less information to prospective and entering students about the career experiences of their recent graduates than do the law schools and business schools on the very same campuses. This should certainly change; students need to be provided with far better information if they are to have realistic expectations as they embark upon a course of graduate study and postdoc research that often can stretch out over most of their 20s.

A second promising approach is to strengthen the feedback loops between employers that recruit recent science graduates and the universities that educate them. This is one of the fundamental elements of the Professional Science Masters (PSM) degree programs that the Sloan Foundation has been supporting around the country. Typically these degrees involve two years of intensive graduate-level course work in relevant scientific fields, combined with courses in so-called "plus" skills that employers routinely report they seek in new hires: skills in communication, management, teamwork, leadership, entrepreneurship, along with on-the-job experience via internships with interested employers. Each PSM degree is assisted by advisory committees composed of employers in the relevant field and geographical region who provide ongoing mid-course corrections as to changing workforce needs and requirements.

A full listing of current PSM degrees is maintained on the web by the Council of Graduate Schools at www. A number of large universities and university systems have recently begun ambitious initiatives for campus-wide and system-wide PSM across large numbers of fields and departments. These include, for example, the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign, the multi-campus University of North Carolina system, the 23-campus California State University System, and Rutgers University.

What might corporate employers do on Monday morning? Those with an interest in recruiting PSM graduates, or otherwise expressing interest in Professional Science Masters programs, can contact the faculty and administrators responsible for PSM programs at well over 55 universities across the country. More generally, corporate employers might focus their concerns upon the specifics of the fields and regions in which they recruit new employees rather than join in claims about "shortages" or "looming shortfalls" in all of science and engineering, claims that as described above do not appear to be consistent with objective data and analyses. Finally, corporate employers would be well advised to examine their own internal data regarding the remuneration and career paths of their scientific and engineering workforces, to assess whether these are offering attractive prospects relative to alternative career paths for talented U.S. students.

Typical Report Recommendations

Tapping America's Potential (2005)

* More/better K-12 teachers

* More S&E undergrad/grad

** More scholarships and loan-forgiveness at all levels

* More S&E immigrants

* More research funding

Rising Above the Gathering Storm (2006)

* More/better K-12 teachers

* More S&E scholarships

** +25,000 4-yr undergraduate

** +5,000 3-yr graduate

* More S&E immigrants

* More research funding

* Double R&D tax credit

Notes and References

(1.) See, among other sources, Harold Salzman and B. Lindsay Lowell. 2007. Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand. Washington: Urban Institute, October 29, pp. 29-31. http://

(2.) There are many journalistic reports of senior scientists and engineers advising students, including their own children, not to pursue careers in these fields.

(3.) As usefully summarized in the paper from the Urban Institute, cited above.

(4.) These data are routinely published in the National Science Foundation's excellent compendium Sciences and Engineering Indicators. See for example National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2004, Chapter 2, "Higher Education--Undergraduate Enrollment in S&E" (Washington: National Science Foundation, 2004). Available online at http://www.nsfgov/statistics/seind04/c2/ c2s3.htm

(5.) Charles A. Goldman and William F. Massy. 2001. The PhD Factory: Training and Employment of Science and Engineering Doctorates in the United States. Boston: Anker Publishing. The research on which this book was based was supported by a peer-reviewed grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

(6.) David Korn, et al. 2002. The NIH Budget in the "Postdoubling" Era. Science, Vol. 296, 24, pp. 1401-1402.

(7.) An excellent presentation on the NIH situation, presented at Harvard University, February, 2007, by Paula Stephan of Georgia State University can be found at: Early%20Careers%20for%20Biomedical%20Scientists.pdf

(8.) National Research Council, Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel. 2000. Forecasting Demand and Supply of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers: Report of a Workshop on Methodology. Washington: National Academies Press.

Michael Teitelbaum is a demographer and vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in New York City. A Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he has been on the faculties of Oxford and Princeton. Parts of this paper draw upon his November 6, 2007 invited testimony before a subcommittee of the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives. The paper represents the professional views of the author, and not necessarily of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which takes no positions on these matters.
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Title Annotation:ONE POINT OF VIEW; shortage in supply of engineers and scientists
Comment:Is there really a shortage of technical professionals?(ONE POINT OF VIEW)(shortage in supply of engineers and scientists )
Author:Teitelbaum, Michael S.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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