By Ian Siegel
Nov. 6, 2015
Here is some breaking news to absolutely no one who follows the U.S. labor market: the United States economy is suffering from a lack of qualified STEM candidates for science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs.
The question in front of us is whether we have the collective will to make policy choices that will address this shortage and drive the economy forward on the strength of dynamic new industries with high-paying STEM jobs.
In an economy that is often bemoaned for a lack of “good, high paying jobs” there are actually huge numbers of companies that are desperate to fill open slots for STEM workers. A study by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation showed that recent graduates working in STEM fields earn a median salary that is 33 percent higher than the average graduate.
Despite higher-than-average salaries for STEM workers, one analysis shows STEM jobs require 50 percent more time to fill than the typical job. Industries that are especially dependent on STEM workers are among the fastest growing parts of the U.S. economy, so the demand for STEM workers will continue to grow over time.
As the CEO of a fast-growing company with many STEM workers, I see firsthand the growing need for a greater supply of talent, and I feel the pain of struggling to fill job openings fast enough in high-demand categories. The difference in recruiting STEM workers and non-STEM workers at our company is palpable: managers who want to hire for lower-demand jobs submit to me detailed plans around the need for those workers, whereas I tell managers to hire every great software engineer they can find even if they do not know where they will put them to work.
In addition, we recently hired our first engineering team in a foreign country, despite the regulatory and time-zone challenges involved, because we cannot hire equivalent teams fast enough in the U.S.
In our globally competitive world, the U.S. must decide whether it wants to compete or retreat in STEM-driven industries. Retreating would have massive effects on the future dynamism and growth of the U.S. economy and jobs. While the issues that arise from rapid growth of tech industries in tech hubs can be complex and require deft policy responses, the only rational choice for the United States is to compete aggressively in STEM industries.
Boosting STEM Workforce Efforts
In the short term, the U.S. can address problems in STEM industries by recruiting talented professionals worldwide. H1-B visas, for example, enable employers to identify qualified foreign nationals and grant them temporary status for specific jobs.
While H1-B visas can apply to any number of industries, a significant portion was granted for STEM professionals for fiscal 2015. Currently, H1-B visas are capped at 85,000 annually, which is far too low a number to meet the present demand for STEM workers and allows only a fraction of those who are qualified and interested into the country.
Ultimately, H1-B visas aren’t a long-term solution to a STEM worker shortage. The U.S. education system and job training infrastructure must generate a larger pool of qualified STEM workers from future generations entering the job market. Future entry-level workers must be comfortable using new technology and be able to quickly learn about new STEM disciplines.
This does not mean parents should forbid their kids from majoring in English literature. The ability to think, learn and communicate comfortably on multiple subjects will be critical for future job requirements and will complement comfort with technical topics. Nonetheless, parents, educators and students must demand that the education system churn out graduates that are ready for STEM jobs.
If the U.S. does not quickly improve our competitiveness globally in the most important job categories, those industries will move overseas faster than our next generation of STEM workers get educated and job ready.
The time for action is now, but that action will have to be sustained for as long as we continue to believe that future generations should inherit an economy with good, high-paying jobs.
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