Scientific, technological, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs have tangled root issues that complicate employment offers and pay budgeting for the future. Shortages or surpluses? Conventional wisdom is that there are candidate shortages for thousands of critical STEM jobs that remain unfilled. Academics project an insufficient supply of students entering the educational pipelines for those professions. Managers request higher pay rates to attract worthwhile STEM professionals. But reality is not that clear. Here are some facts that might help settle the inevitable disputes that will arise.
An authoritative but complex federal report issued last summer by Bureau of Labor Statistics tackles and tangles the topic. It uses a “taxicab queuing model” as a framing metaphor, to examine the heterogeneous nature of STEM occupations. Huh? Translation: "The demand and supply of STEM workers vary by market and location in much the same way that the demand and supply of taxicabs and passengers do".
If you don't like the BLS analogy about cabs, then pick another set of words like:
- yes and no
- more or less
- heterogeneity exists (there are both shortages and surpluses)
- a little of both but sometimes neither
- ambiguous, constantly changing situation
All those phrases describe the confusing array of factual findings about STEM jobs. It is difficult to simply resolve all the various claims about shortages of qualified STEM candidates. For every assertion about vast numbers of vacant slots, evidence also appears showing an absence of employment opportunities that fit candidate interests or skills.
The federal report concluded the United States has:
- an excess supply of academics with advanced STEM degrees vainly seeking positions that offer some prospect of tenure;
- regional mismatches between job openings and qualified applicants with specific technical skills;
- thousands of biomedical, pharmaceutical and chemistry graduates seeking positions in those currently politically incorrect fields where almost no one is hiring;
- a severe dearth of teaching posts attractive to the highly trained professionals who may consider themselves overqualified for the available openings;
- narrow shortfalls of qualified candidates for certain government STEM jobs that require U.S. citizenship and/or security clearances for employment;
- a general unmet demand for petroleum engineers (but the bust of the Bakken oil field in ND and the plunge in global energy prices may have reversed that 2015 situation); and
- some very geographically restricted shortages of private industry technical jobs like production operators and mobile software application developers, even as last year "the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 74 percent of those who have a bachelor’s degree in a STEM major are not employed in STEM occupations."
Meanwhile, the usual clamor is heard demanding much higher increase rates for STEM occupations than for other fields of work. Seems like engineers in particular typically win the strongest pay increases every year. Engineering professional societies are quite influential. Much like a powerful union, they have loyal members who self-report pay figures to association-conducted surveys that support lock-step maturity curve patterns. Many of the assertions made by and for engineers continue to be highly questionable, particularly claims of a shortage crisis. Of course, all generalities are in some ways untrue, including this one.
Michael S. Teitelbaum, vice president of the Sloan Foundation, opined that there are no general shortages of scientists and engineers. He went even further, to state that there is evidence suggesting surpluses: there are significantly more science and engineering graduates in the United States than attractive positions available in the workforce. Similarly, B. Lindsay Lowell and Harold Salzman have pointed to the disproportionate percentage of bachelor’s degree STEM holders not employed in STEM occupations.
Copious details abound in the BLS report. The cautious research results may be useful to counteract the frequently hysterical fearful concerns of senior managers. Like most claims in life, some are valid and some are false, some will apply and some will be irrelevant. As guardians over payroll budget allocations, compensation people have to decide which is which.
Have fun deciding which facts apply in your case!
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent compensation advisor with extensive total rewards experience. After corporate HR and consulting roles in most industries, he was Senior Associate of pay surveyor ERI before returning to consulting in 2015. A prolific writer (author of the Performance Management Workbook), speaker and frequent expert witness, Jim testified in many reasonable executive compensation cases. He also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
Image by Vik, courtesy of Creative Commons