Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dubious Need for more STEM Graduates

Educators, as well as policy makers all over the United States should come to know the names, and work of two research professors: Hal Salzman is a professor of public policy from Rutgers. Dr.Lindsay Lowell is from Georgetown University and the Director of Policy Studies for the Institute of International Migration.

For the last couple of years these two professors have been wrestling with an assumption driving US education policy. It goes something like this: US high-tech corporations are not able to find enough science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates to supply their employment needs. This forces corporations to move jobs offshore or to utilize the Guest Worker Program to bring in foreign STEM workers.

Salzman and Lowell decided to do something US policy makers did not do. They decided not to trust anecdotes as evidence. The academics began researching the supply of STEM graduates. After a couple of studies on the issue, the researches decided to use longitudinal data sets covering a 30 year period of time to determine what has really been happening with STEM. Today, this report has become public and provides support for the previous research from the pair.

I will save you from a 53 page read of "Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline" (Also the previous paper by the authors,"Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality and Workforce Demand") with some key points from all the work:

*US colleges and universities are still graduating as many STEM as they were in the 1970s.
*Supply is not the problem. US universities have graduated about three times more STEM than were employed in the science fields.
*There is a trend of the top quintile of STEM to choose other fields, possibly because pay and other employment conditions are no longer competitive.
* To reiterate with a quote from Dr. Lowell, "...there is no evidence of a long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs."

Unfortunately, this modest common sense conclusion, now backed by significant research may not make headlines, let alone policy changes; but it should. Think about it...we have based an significant part of our national education policy off erroneous assumption.

We assumed that corporations could not get enough quality STEM graduates. We assumed they went offshore in pursuit of ability. More irritating and insulting was the assumption that not only was there a STEM shortage, but that the shortage was due to poor public schools and poor teachers.

It now appears that US corporations have once again taken the nation down the wrong path. There is no STEM shortage. US corporations pursued cheap STEM workers offshore the same way a generation earlier they pursued cheap manufacturing workers offshore.

Teachers are not responsible for workers failing to be "globally competitive". Corporations are making a choice not to employee US graduates that has little to do with their education.

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